By Rebecca Cohen and Allyson Byers | Medill News Service

Cato education

Adam Schaeffer and Patrick Byrne answer questions about public school spending. (Photo by Allyson Byers/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON — It doesn’t take a K-12 education to see how states could shrug off their budget deficits by adopting school vouchers, Patrick Byrne said Tuesday at an education forum hosted by the Cato Institute.

“The arithmetic is sixth grade arithmetic,” the founder of 19 schools said of his calculations, which indicate states needlessly spend about $264,000 a year per classroom. Byrne is also the president of Internet retailer

Byrne and other panelists at the libertarian think tank’s forum “Fiscal Undertow: How Public Schools Are Drowning State and Local Budgets, and What to Do about It” accused state governments of concealing their total education spending.

When the hidden costs of public school are tallied, educating a child costs as much as tuition at elite Washington private schools such as Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Prep, the panelists said. Sidwell Friends’ tuition costs $32,069 a year, and Georgetown Prep’s costs $26,935 for day students, according to the schools’ websites.

Byrne estimated states spend an average of $14,000 per student per year. Although most states report figures several thousand dollars lower, he said they reach those numbers by lumping some educational spending into other categories, such as health care.

“Not everyone in the room can be shorter than average,” he said.

By offering families a $6,000 voucher to send each child to private school, state governments would save $80 billion if only 20 percent of students accepted the offer, Byrne said. The combined state deficit, he said, is currently more than $60 billion.

The stimulus package has buffered taxpayers from the impact of government overspending, but now that funds are running dry public education cuts will have to be made, said Kil Huh, director of research at the Pew Center of the States.

Some forms of spending, such as teachers’ pensions, have already gone to the chopping block. States such as Illinois, where only 50 percent of teachers’ pensions are currently funded, require educators to pay into their own retirement funds.

The government’s manipulation of education spending figures has made people think school vouchers will increase costs, said Adam Schaeffer, policy analyst for the Cato Institute for Educational Freedom. In fact, cities with voucher programs generally save money. For example, Milwaukee’s voucher program saves about $32 million a year, he said.

Private schools also provide educational benefits, Schaeffer said. Studies have shown that private school students graduate at higher rates than public school students. And though critics of private schools stereotype them as homogeneous, students at such schools are more likely to eat lunch with members of other races, Byrne said.

By forcing public schools to compete with private schools for students, voucher programs ultimately make both school types stronger, Byrne said.

“Only when [the education system] is organized from the bottom up and people get to vote with their feet do people have any incentive to shake out fraud,” he said.