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What if America Spent Per Student What Clinton, Trump Paid for Private Schools?


In his speech last week at the Republican National Convention, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. noted that he and his siblings were fortunate to have options for their schooling: "We want all Americans to have those same opportunities."

Thumbnail image for 072016-RNC-SP1658-2.jpgFair enough. But Donald Trump Jr., along with his siblings and Hillary Clinton's daughter Chelsea, went to private schools that weren't cheap. And so have several other presidential hopefuls' children, for that matter. 

So we thought about the educational opportunity in monetary terms: How much would it cost to spend the same amount per public school student what it costs to send children to the same private schools attended by the offspring of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton? And what if we tried to match the basic outlines of their children's private school experience when it comes to teachers?

Fortunately, Michael Griffith, an independent school finance consultant, did his own analysis to try to answer those questions. 

Outliers Out of Reach

First, Griffith compared the candidates' private school tuition costs for the schools from which their children graduated to average per-student expenditures in public schools in the children's home state: New York in three of the four Trump children's case; California, in Tiffany Trump's case; and the District of Columbia, in Chelsea Clinton's case. 

Average per-student spending at those schools attended by the five presidential candidates' kids is $38,464. Nationwide, public school funding is $12,251 per student.

For the purposes of Griffith's calculations, he used tuition costs at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., for Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr.; Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn. for Ivanka Trump; Viewpoint School for Tiffany Trump; and the Sidwell Friends School in the District of Columbia for Chelsea Clinton. (More on that somewhat tricky issue below.) Correction: We originally misidentified where Choate Rosemary Hall is located, although the error didn't impact our description of Griffith's analysis.

But let's think long term about how that plays out over a child's time at the elementary and secondary levels. The costs below would cover students' entire educational careers at their respective schools.

The figures above are based on current annual costs, and not what Clinton and Trump actually paid themselves in tuition costs. And Griffith's work requires some extrapolation: The private schools' grade spans don't necessarily match up with those in public schools. The Hill School, for example, where Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. went, enrolls grades 9-12. But Sidwell Friends enrolls pre-K-12.

We should also point out that Chelsea Clinton attended public school in Arkansas before Bill Clinton was elected president and she moved to Washington, where she enrolled in the Sidwell Friends private school. Given security and logistical concerns, it might make sense for a president to send his or her school-age child to private school. President Barack Obama's daughters also enrolled in Sidwell Friends.

Even when it comes to tony private schools, the ones attended by Clinton and Trump's children are up in the financial stratosphere. As of 2011, less than a fifth of all U.S. private schools charged more than $15,000 annually per student in tuition, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 


Here's some more context for that $38,464 figure: In 2014, the U.S. Census reported, the median income of a family with two or more school-age children (like Trump's family) was $53,989. That's the same as $54,970 in inflation-adjusted 2016 dollars. So the average private school tuition for the five children of the candidates would eat up 70 percent of such a median family's budget.

Here are a couple of other statistics to consider:

Thumbnail image for Hillary-Clinton-NEA-blog.jpg• Combined costs at the private schools attended by all four Trump children and Chelsea Clinton for some or all of their lives, in Griffith's analysis, clocks in at $2.5 million over the course of their educational careers.

• Combined costs for three New York state public school children (to match their Empire State counterparts Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka Trump), a California public school student (to match Tiffany Trump), and a District of Columbia public school student (to match Chelsea Clinton) clocks in at $1 million over their educational careers.

You can call that a gulf instead of a gap if you want. 

Bring On the Teachers?

OK, but let's think really big. What if we spent $38,464 on each public school student in the nation? What would be the total annual cost, and how much of a change would it be from current per-student spending levels?

Griffith has answers for that, too.

He has America spending $595 billion on K-12 from federal, state, and local sources. How much more would it be if we spent $38,464 on each student, instead of $12,251?

That's a theoretical increase of $1.2 trillion. Does that dollar amount sound familiar? It might. That's because in 2014, the entire student-loan debt of 40 million Americans was also estimated at $1.2 trillion. We're not talking a few lint-covered quarters here. 

Finally, Griffith looked at the average student-to-teacher ratio in the four private schools attended by Clinton and Trump's children. It came out to about 7.4 students per teacher on average.

By contrast, the national ratio of students to teachers is about 16:1—there are 48.5 million public school students, and 3.1 million public school teachers. The sources for these figures are given below.

However, those ratios are not the same thing as average class size

So how many more teachers would the nation have to hire to achieve that 7.4 students-per-teacher ratio like the one the Trump siblings and Chelsea Clinton enjoyed?

The nation would have to increase its teacher workforce by 120 percent, or add nearly 3.8 million new teachers, to match what the Trump children and Chelsea Clinton experienced, on average, in their schools. (Each figure in the graphic above represents about 48,420 teachers.)

Money and Opportunity

Griffith's analysis is quantitative and not ultimately qualitative. And as you might expect, Griffith doesn't say how that additional $1.2 trillion would be redirected to schools and added to their budgets. It's pure theory.

For fiscal 2016, the Department of Defense's budget is $573 billion. A President Clinton or Trump could zero out the Pentagon's budget, redirect that entire pot of money to schools, and it would still cover slightly less than half of the total new money needed to match the average per-student spending figure in the private schools we've discussed. That's assuming, of course, that state and locals don't pitch in at all. 

electionslug_2016_126x126.jpgThere are a lot of other questions.

• Many might want parents to have direct control over that new flood of money through vouchers or education savings accounts. How would redirecting some or all of those dollars straight to parents shake up the educational landscape?

Voucher programs and ESAs mostly, if not universally, aren't large enough to cover tuition at the Hill School or Sidwell Friends—if many parents could use the $38,000 for a local and (likely) much cheaper private school, what could and would they do with the leftover cash?

School choice is certainly an issue Donald Trump has emphasized, on the few occasions when he's spoken about education:

• Where would the money go? Would much or most of it go towards hiring new teachers and drive down those student-to-teacher ratios we've discussed? Or there's educational
technology—would millions of students suddenly get handed a laptop, smartphone, tablet, and (what the heck) Google Glasses courtesy of his or her public school? 

HillSchool.JPG• And as one would expect, the facilities at those private schools attended by the Clinton and Trump children are different than what students experience in Detroit public schools. Per-student spending figures often don't include school construction costs, but what if some districts wanted to create leafy, spacious campuses with swimming pools and amphitheaters?

Look at the campus map of the Hill School to the right. There's a building for squash courts, an arts and crafts center, and a music house. The campus covers 200 acres.

• Here's a related issue: the enrollment size of the private schools in question. Sidwell Friends, for example, enrolls 1,149 students in pre-K-12. You can easily find public high schools alone where the enrollment matches or exceeds that figure. In 2010-11, the average enrollment of an American high school was 847 students, NCES reported, but California's average high school enrollment was 1,463 students.

• And some of the most straightforward yet crucial questions we can ask about this issue are: Would spending over $38,000 per student in public schools create a lot of progress, some, or not at all? And would that be an efficient use of taxpayer dollars?

That kind of per-student spending amount would truly test the arguments about whether inadequate school funding is what's preventing better experiences and outcomes for students.

Of course, many in the K-12 field argue that creating strong educational opportunities for children is not solely, or even largely, about the financial resources provided to those children from their parents or government. But others say, particularly after the Great Recession, many districts and states don't provide what their schools need, particularly for schools with large shares of students of color and those from relatively poor households. How would this kind of influx of money impact debates about socioeconomic and racial integration in schools?

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton's pick for vice president, addressed school integration in his own experience during a speech last Saturday:

Additional Facts and Figures

A few more notes about Griffith's data:

• The private schools' cost information comes from their websites. Per-student spending figures on public schools come from the National Education Association's cost rankings and estimates for 2015 and 2016. 

• He didn't include private school tuition information for Barron Trump, Donald Trump's youngest child—Griffith said this is because Barron is a minor.

• Griffith used tuition information from the schools which the Clinton and Trump children graduated from, but as we noted above regarding Chelsea Clinton, the candidates' children did not necessarily attend those schools all through their elementary and secondary careers. For example, Griffith used costs for Choate Rosemary Hall for Ivanka Trump, but noted that she switched to Choate from the Chapin School when she was 15. And Eric Trump also attended the Trinity School in New York City.

• The tuition amounts in Griffith's calculations are based on the cost for day students, not boarders.

• Tuition for Viewpoint Schools, which Tiffany Trump attended, varies from student to student. Griffith calculated an average of the various tuition costs, assuming a student attended from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Assistant Editor Sarah D. Sparks contributed to this post.

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