Friday Freakout: What School Choice Opponents Are Missing When They Focus Only on Funding
The Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University recently released a report analyzing the design and fiscal effects of K–12 school voucher programs in six states, including Indiana.
The report relies on several pieces of original EdChoice research, and we appreciate those references.
What’s unfortunate about this report and others like it is that critics use them to place the focus entirely on funding—with a “who’s losing money” bent—when it ought to be on those using the vouchers to meet their schooling needs.
Now, we’re not naïve. We know educating our kids requires resources, and we believe families are better positioned to make those decisions than bureaucrats. What’s frustrating is the notion—hammered home by critics and echoed in media coverage—that parents who choose to spend their K–12 funding to obtain a non-traditional or non-public schooling experience are somehow undermining the traditional public school system.
Consider this question: Are you upset when a family moves or transfers out of one public school district and into another to access an education that better suits a student’s needs?
If your answer is no, then you shouldn’t be upset about school vouchers or other forms of school choice.
Still not convinced? As the CEEP report notes, when a student uses a voucher in Indiana, that student takes, at most, 90 percent of the funding that would be allocated to that student in a public school.
So not only does the public school no longer have to educate the voucher student, but the voucher costs the state less than the public school student.
We’ve noted many times, most recently when we released a report that estimated the savings created by tax-credit scholarships, that lawmakers often do not let taxpayers know where those savings wind up. Are they reallocated to support students in the K–12 system? Are they held back for a rainy day? This is an area where policymakers could make the process more transparent—and showcase the savings that school choice creates.
Now, there are those who will hone in on the fact that, according to the CEEP report, half of voucher students in Indiana have never attended public school. (The real number is closer to 40 percent when you consider that the Indiana Department of Education includes kindergarteners—who’ve never attended any school at all—in its count. It’s also worth noting that Hoosier students in underperforming schools are not required to attend public school prior to obtaining a voucher, and siblings of voucher students are automatically qualified to receive a voucher.)
It’s true that those students are not adding any revenue to the bottom line for their ZIP Code-assigned public school district.
But it’s also true that schools experience relief from short-term variable costs to educate them. That’s the same situation any school—public, private or otherwise—finds itself in when a student chooses a new school.
In fact, only in K–12 education do policies exist that reward schools and districts that are losing students.
If a college student transfers from Purdue University to Indiana University, Purdue doesn’t get to keep any of that student’s tuition.
Simply put, the argument that vouchers are siphoning kids and money from public schools just doesn’t hold water. Those kids are using money that’s set aside for their education for schooling options that meet their needs.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that Indiana’s voucher program is the largest in the nation, but the cost is just 1.1 percent—$135 million out of $12 billion—of what the state spends on K–12 education overall.
One of the reasons for Indiana’s high voucher usage is, unlike many programs, the state has no cap on enrollment. Every eligible child is guaranteed funding. Students are only limited by the number of available private school seats.
That’s not a good thing if you approach this issue with the assumption that kids should default to public schools. It’s a great thing if you believe families should have options that help them match their kids to the kind of education that works best for them.
Ironically, there was a proposal circulated earlier this year in Indiana that would have created a universal voucher for prekindergarten education—by borrowing funds allocated for the K–12 voucher program. In other words, every family in Indiana would be eligible for prekindergarten funding at the expense of those means-tested students currently enrolled using a K–12 voucher.
At EdChoice, we appreciate the value of original research—it’s an integral part of our mission—but we want to make sure we’re always looking beyond the data to those who benefit from educational choice.
That’s why education policy shouldn’t be about pitting one system or sector against another. No single kind of school is “better” than another. The endgame should be expanding quality options, and that includes those in the public sector, which serves many students well.
Ultimately, though, it’s impossible for a one-size-fits-all system to meet every family’s demands or match itself to every child’s needs. Choice programs create a more robust environment for students and families to find what works, and that’s a good thing in the long run.