Updated with corrected numbers.
Last week Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina released a study of private school tuition across the state, making the case for public scholarships to help poor and working-class families attend private schools.
Spoiler alert: Some of the numbers in "An Affordable Option: Increasing Private School Access for Working Class Families" are wrong. More about that to come.
First it's worth exploring the concept of "opportunity scholarships" (opponents would say it's dressing up the politically sensitive term "vouchers"). Last year the N.C. legislature approved spending public money to help students with disabilities attend private schools. This year's crew is big on school choice and may well look at expanding that opportunity to other students.
The hypothetical program outlined by PEFNC would make families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for a state-funded scholarship of $4,824 a year, or 90 percent of what the state spends for each student in public school. Families earning between 185 and 275 percent of the poverty level would be eligible for half the state's per-pupil average, or a $2,861 scholarship. According to this year's federal guidelines, the poverty level is $23,550 for a family of four, which would mean that family could earn almost $43,600 a year for the larger sum or $64,800 for the smaller one.
"Long term, an Opportunity Scholarship Program saves taxpayers money because the cost of a scholarship is less than what the state spends per student," the report says.
But would that sum get a student into private schools? To answer that question, PEFNC tackled a daunting task: Rounding up tuition figures from roughly 700 private schools listed in the state's directory. That's even trickier than it sounds, because many schools vary tuition by grade level. The group ended up with listings for 560 schools, with charges broken out by every level from 3-year-old preschool to 12th grade.
PEFNC calculated the average tuition rate at $6,238 a year. "But when excluding unique high-tuition schools which comprise fewer than 10 percent of all private schools in the state, the average tuition is just $5,404 -- a figure that is more reflective of the majority of North Carolina's private schools," the report says. A scholarship of about $4,800 a year could easily bring many private schools into the reach of working class families, the group concludes.
The problem arises with the county-by-county breakdown that's included. It shows that Mecklenburg County is among the state's most expensive, with a median tuition of $7,750 for elementary school, $8,352 for middle school and $4,905 for high school.
The relatively high costs rang true. The high school drop did not. When I asked PEFNC spokesman Stan Chambers for elaboration, he sent me a school-by-school breakdown for Mecklenburg County, with schools identified by numbers rather than names. It was clear at a glance that the columns for grades 10-12 were garbled. One school that charged more than $15,000 for lower grades was listed as charging $2,750 for grades 10-12. Another listed as a preK-8 school had tuition listed for grades 10-12.
My first two attempts to tell Chambers he had a problem were rebuffed. The divergence in high school tuition numbers, for Mecklenburg and many other counties, arose because some private schools don't offer high school, he insisted. He declined to provide names so I could check the numbers, saying the study had guaranteed confidentiality.
"I can tell you that we contacted every private school in North Carolina, which is no small feat for any organization, let alone a small nonprofit," Chambers replied. "As far as I know, no one has ever collected this type data on a large scale before. Presenting a report with flawed data cripples our credibility (which we have painstakingly built since 2005) and severely undermines our ability to advocate for every child to have access to a quality education."
It was only when I copied President Darrell Allison on an email challenging PEFNC to recheck just three of the Mecklenburg schools with the most unlikely numbers that I got a response. Sure enough, a review uncovered that the columns for grades 10-12 were scrambled in a final run of the Excel spreadsheet, when the alphabetical listing of schools was re-sorted by county. Allison sent me a corrected version of the Mecklenburg data, which shows high school tuition ranging from $3,200 to $21,810 a year, with a median around $9,500.
Allison says it was an honest mistake. I have no reason to doubt him.
He says the statewide averages were not affected. That could be true, if the high school cells were correct but assigned to the wrong schools.
But I'm willing to bet that all or most of the county medians for high schools are wrong. Again, you can look at results like those for Orange County (middle school $15,580, high school $6,203) or Sampson County (middle school $5,830, high school $17,400) and know they don't pass the smell test.
Because of that, I'd warn anyone to be wary of using this data. That's a shame, given the work it took to produce it. If lawmakers explore offering public money for private tuition, they'd be wise to get their own staff to research the details.
Update: Allison sent a corrected county chart this afternoon, and sure enough, the new high school numbers make sense. The report will be revised and re-released "in the upcoming weeks," he said.
"Because the data for grades 10-12 was simply mis-sorted, the overall numbers were not affected. PEFNC remains confident that the statewide average and median reflected in the report remain accurate," he reports.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Updated with corrected numbers.