If you’ve ever spoken to a public school teacher or administrator about how to improve the public-school system, the conversation inevitably comes down to one thing: “If we only had more funding.”
I experienced this firsthand a few days ago at “back to school night” for my daughter’s high school in Arlington County, Virginia, where I heard teacher after teacher talk about how there just wasn’t enough funding to provide opportunities offered in the past: no field trips for earth science, no extra resources for senior project, and certainly no school-sponsored trip to France for advanced French students.
While there’s nothing new about teachers lamenting limited funds, this struck me as particularly odd given the Arlington County Public School budget for fiscal year 2015, which shows yet another increase in spending for the district. Costs per K-12 student rose to $19,040 in this 2015 budget, up 2 percent from last year. Arlington County consistently ranks far above the national average in per-student costs (which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was $10,608 per student in 2012), and also outspends all of the neighboring counties.
Supporters of higher per-student spending often argue this is the price taxpayers need to pay for academic excellence (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary). It also benefits spendthrift politicians that local media outlets typically keep the public in the dark about the true cost of public education—polls show most voters think local schools cost about half what they really do. In this case, just next door, Fairfax County Public Schools spend almost 30 percent less per student, and still manage to have 14 schools achieve state and national rankings.
Arlington County’s high costs might seem justified if your child attends Yorktown High School or Washington-Lee High School, respectively ranked No. 8 and No. 21 on U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of Virginia public high schools. But if you live in South Arlington, your child attends Wakefield High School, a school that doesn’t even make the list.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful we live in an area where even the lowest-ranking public school in the county can offer expensive high-tech buildings, athletics, and resources that aren’t available to many children around the country. While I wish my daughter spent more time in Advanced Placement Government studying the Constitution than learning about the evils of the Koch brothers, I’m thankful she is smart enough to ask tough questions in and out of the classroom.
A World of Blocked Opportunities
But, looking at Wakefield’s academic record, I can’t help but think about how that money could be put to better use by giving parents the freedom to choose the best path for their child. If Virginia allowed an Education Savings Account (ESA) program like Arizona or Florida, more lower- and middle-class families could reach for the private schools available to Washington’s elite. While $19,000 only covers two-thirds of the cost of Sidwell Friends School, it is more than enough for a number of highly ranked area private schools.
With access to an ESA, my daughter could have attended Trinity Christian School, a well-established school with an exemplary record and average SAT scores almost 400 points higher than Wakefield High School. While the $13,000 tuition at Trinity is more than we could afford, an ESA would fund a higher-quality, private-school education that encourages faith, service, and Christian principles—while still expending $24,000 less than Arlington County spends per high school student across their four years. The money left over could easily lower everyone’s taxes, or provide that trip to France, those field trips for earth science, or a comfortable senior project allowance.
This kind of flexibility could be life-changing for Virginia students across the board, but particularly benefits minority students, who often get the short end of the stick on access to the highest-quality education. In Arlington County, the lowest-ranked school is also the most diverse, with more than 80 percent of the student body at Wakefield High School consisting of minority students.
I hope Virginia will follow other states’ leads and open more doors to parents pursuing the best possible education for their children. My daughter and so many others deserve the same opportunities as those with the means to move to the right neighborhood, or opt out of the system altogether. In the meantime, I also hope every parent in South Arlington takes a look at the county schools budget, and asks the schools to do more with their ample funds.