Last month I participated in the Goldwater Institute education conference "Preparing Students to Compete Internationally." Speakers included such leading scholars as voucher researcher Paul Peterson of Harvard and Abigail Thernstrom, Vice Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The discussion ranged from domestic achievement gaps between students of different socio-economic and racial backgrounds to the gap between American students and those in other countries (the subject of my own presentation).

One study that had already been making news in Arizona was a detailed breakdown of the state’s per-pupil spending. The study, authored by Friedman Foundation Senior Fellow Susan Aud, revealed that Arizona spends roughly $9,000 per student, rather than the $5,000 typically reported by school officials.

State officials and journalists have been quick to point out that Aud’s figures include capital outlays for schools and the interest paid on school bonds, as if to suggest that these expenses shouldn’t count. Aud defended the inclusion of such costs on the grounds that most parents expect their local schools to have buildings, and that buildings cost money.

What, I wonder, could be the counterargument?

"An olive grove was good enough for Plato’s students, so it should be good enough for your kids!"?

But even with Arizona’s modest precipitation rate, open-air learning wouldn’t be entirely agreeable during the warmer months. Plato, after all, had the summer breezes off the Aegean to keep his pupils from spontaneously combusting.

Another useful presentation was by lawyer Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice’s Arizona chapter. Tim not only indicated that a current legal challenge to the Arizona scholarship donation tax credit is frivolous and likely to fail, but also explained why the tax-credit program survived a previous legal challenge that reached the Arizona Supreme Court.

The two factors responsible for its survival, he explained, were that it had an educational purpose that was religiously neutral, and that it made no use of government funds. Nonrefundable tax credits allow taxpayers to keep more of their own money, which they can then donate to a scholarship fund that pays for a child’s education. Since the money is never collected as taxes in the first place, it is not government money, and it cannot not run afoul of court precedents or state or federal constitutional prohibitions respecting the use of government money. This is a theme, incidentally, discussed at length in my 2004 publication "Forging Consensus."

There were many other interesting results. In Arizona, as in the nation as a whole, private schools appear to charge half as much in tuition as public schools spend per pupil, according to a study conducted by the Goldwater Institute’s own Vicki Murray. Some private schools, notably Catholic schools, receive income from sources other than tuition, but this additional income has only a modest effect on the overall ratio of private to public school cost.

All in all, the conference was a productive and enlightening affair.

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Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.