California’s finances are a “mess,” as the Wall Street Journal recently observed, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is grappling with an array of cost-saving options, including K-12 education. In these conditions, perhaps the Golden State could learn a few things from the Garden State. New Jersey is one of the few states with a fiscal surplus—and one of the country’s leaders in student achievement.
In any given state, elementary and secondary education accounts for roughly half the general fund budget. California comes in at around 40 percent but total annual education spending, which now approaches $70 billion, exceeds the entire operating budgets of every other state in the nation. Unlike California, New Jersey is embarking on a promising new strategy to get its skyrocketing education costs under control without jeopardizing educational quality.
Public school costs in New Jersey have increased more than $600 million over the past decade due to an influx of students. To ease overcrowding in public schools and ensure the widest possible array of high-quality K-12 education options, New Jersey is considering an innovative scholarship program.
The state spends roughly $20,000 per pupil every year. The plan would allow families to use scholarships worth just a portion of that $20,000 to send their children to one of the state’s private schools if they wish. Elementary school scholarships would be worth about $6,000 and around $9,000 for high-school scholarships.
“We can save over one billion dollars a year and provide a better education for children,” said New Jersey state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union.
A variation of this plan, in principle, is already working in California, where state-funded scholarships are commonplace. Each year thousands of qualified undergraduates get CalGrants worth up to $9,700 to help pay tuition and fees at the public or private college of their choice. A similar program could be adopted for K-12 education as well.
Funding for California public schools averages $12,600 per-pupil, according to California Department of Education financial reports. In the Sacramento area, per-pupil funding ranges anywhere from just over $10,000 at the El Dorado Union High School District to more than $11,000 at Natomas Unified ($12,000), Sacramento City Unified ($12,800) and North Elementary ($13,900)—and even higher than $14,000 at Roseville Joint Unified ($14,900) and Grant Joint Union High School District ($16,000).
In the pattern of California colleges, these K-12 students could be allowed to use just a portion of those funds to attend neighboring private schools. This would help, not hurt, state finances.
The typical California public school receives $6,200 in general purpose state aid funding. The remaining $6,400 comes from other state, local and federal sources. Letting students use scholarships worth just $6,200 would put most private schools within families’ financial reach, save public schools the cost of educating them and leave plenty of funding left over to cover any overhead costs.
Once an education leader, California now ranks near the bottom in K-12 student achievement. The state also faces severe financial shortfalls and a shaky economy. In the university system, however, state-funded scholarships are working well. Extending them to K-12 would save the Golden State millions of dollars and invest in California’s future.