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August 19, 2011  BY Chris Belcher

Legislation regarding charter schools, vouchers, tuition credits and other school reform issues often cite the cost of education as the nexus for change. I know, as a public school superintendent, I risk sounding defensive as I take on this topic, but misinformation about public educational expense results in a lopsided debate. So I offer the following — probably biased — analysis of educational costs.

Chris Belcher

Chris Belcher

Columbia Public Schools spent an estimated $9,300 per student for the 2010-11 school year including summer school; the state average stands at $9,700 per student for 2009-2010. This is operational dollars that are derived from local/county taxes and state/federal revenue. About 82 percent of this amount is spent for salary and benefits of employees who serve the district’s 17,550 students. Expenditures include all regular educational expenses, special education, alternative education, gifted education, early childhood education, transportation and many special programs for student intervention.

Starting with the base cost of $9,300 per student, we can conservatively deduct the approximate 14 percent of student expenditure that is required by federal law for students with disabilities. Most private schools do not provide special educational services. In fact, CPS provides any services to students in private schools as required by law. Cost per student minus the special educational program would then stand at $7,998.

The school district also provides services for alternative education, programs designed to assist students who are not being successful in the normal school setting. This includes Douglass High School, intervention programs at each school and some after-school educational offerings. Programs for the gifted and talented students — known as EEE in our school district — are also provided.

Finally, specialized counseling programs and family support programs are available to connect students and families with needed social services and support programs. Almost 40 percent of CPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal indicator of poverty. Approximately 2.1 percent of the operational budget is expended for these programs. These programs are often not provided in many private school operations. Cost per student minus these programs would now stand at $7,800.

Public schools are required to provide transportation for students. CPS has the highest efficiency rating available and obtains the maximum amount of state funding for transportation. More than $7.5 million is spent on transportation, or about 4.7 percent of the district’s operational budget. Cost per student minus transportation expenditures would now stand at $7,360.

A quick survey of private schools in Missouri shows tuitions at elementary schools ranging from $3,300 to $11,000 and secondary private school tuition ranging from $6,900 to $13,000.

Private schools in our area and many throughout the state do a tremendous job of educating children. I am a strong advocate for parents having choices for their children’s education: public, private or parochial. Public education is a defining institution of our democracy and is essential to an educated electorate and a free society.

Columbia Public Schools is proud to provide quality educational programs at a comparable cost to our private school contemporaries.