Cost Per Student Per Hour

Let’s say it costs a district $10,000 annually to educate one student. Divide that estimate by 180 days per year, divide again by 7 hours of instruction time per day, and we get $7.94. This back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that, for every ten thousand dollars in annual spending per student, a given student will receive, without charge or obligation, a value of $7.94 each hour she attends class. This money – of course – comes from the local taxpayers.

Now, let’s say we look at a high performing private school. I’m arbitrarily choosing Harvard-Westlake in Los Angelos as an example. At HW, tuition and books runs about $31,000 annually. Do the same rough calculation, and we’ll see that a student receives $24.60 worth of instruction each hour of class she attends. (I’m assuming the public school student and the private school student attend class for the same amount of time). All of that money comes from the student’s family.

Here’s my question, as a sometimes naive non-economist: If the public school student experiences a net value of +$7.94 in her education and the private school student experiences a net value of -$24.60 in her education, why does the public school student perform worse in higher-level academics and careers than the private school student? I can ask the question another way: Why does the private school student perform better in higher-level academics and careers if her financial costs are not supplemented?

The question may be naive because, it seems, the financial burden of acquiring an education differs from the personal enrichment of having acquired an education. The two differ qualitatively, even if we could come up with some way to compare them through an arbitrary quantitative benchmark.

Yet I think there may be another issue at hand – and here’s where someone with a strong background in economics can help me out. It seems to me that when a service provides an individual some value at no risk, the individual has trouble redirecting the given value in meaningful ways.

It’s like if I gave someone a dollar who didn’t ask for it. He may be greatful, but, up until that point, he had no plan for using a dollar. He must now decide what to do with the free money, and his decision may end in frivolity – like buying a lottery ticket.

Based on this story, we might observe that public school gives students far more opportunity to gamble with their education than private schooling does. The incentive to learn does not exist, or, the incentive to learn in public school values at -$7.94. For private school students, the incentive is much higher – as high as +$24.60 – depending on how you factor in being “spoiled” or “pampered.”

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