From Deep in the Heart of Texas, the Boldest School Choice Idea of Them All?

Published July 14, 2011

“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a saying often attributed to Plato, though not found in his works. Whatever the origin, it translates into mod-speak roughly as, “Tight spots inspire innovative solutions.”

This timeless wisdom applies to an ingenious proposal introduced late in the current Texas legislative session as a way to deal with the serious crunch in school budgeting caused by the long, lingering recession. In a year when targeted school choice scholarships are advancing in many states, the Taxpayers’ Savings Grants (TSG) program under consideration in Texas showcases the vast potential of all-out choice for helping parents, students, and teachers, as well as harried keepers of public budgets.

The TSG could do the following in Texas simply by unleashing the power of voluntarism:

* Throw wide open the door to private school choice, with at least 350,000 students opting for public-to-private school transfers.

* Save the state government $2 billion in school spending over the next two years by trimming from the budget an average of $3,429 for each student choosing to accept the TSG.

* Increase per-pupil spending by $473 for those students remaining in public schools.

* Improve working conditions for public school teachers by reducing class size and concentrating more resources on the classroom.

* Empower the Texas Controller of Public Accounts to ensure that no fraud or abuse occurs in the use of the Savings Grants. Private schools accepting TSG students would not be subjected to regulatory red tape. They would be accountable to the families choosing them.

In essence, the state would offer parents with children currently in public schools (or about to enter kindergarten or first grade) this deal: “If you choose to shift your children from public to private schools, we will provide you with up to 60 percent of what we, the state government, would normally spend on your children. You can use this as reimbursement of your private school tuition.”

The maximum grant would be $5,143, or the cost of tuition, whichever was less. If the grant did not cover tuition fully, parents would be free to supplement it. Many good private or parochial schools are about $5,000 for annual tuition.

Would there be enough demand to make this program a win-win? Institute for Justice analysts Richard Komer and Matt Miller reminded us all in The Daily Caller of May 26 that when philanthropists offered enough money to pay for 40,000 partial scholarships back in the 1990s, a staggering 1.4 million applied nationwide.

Would there be enough private school seats to accommodate the demand? Experience from hotbeds of charter schools and private choice (such as Milwaukee) indicates school capacity expands to meet the need and public schools improve as well as private ones. Enterprising school managers often use old office buildings, libraries, community centers, and the like to come up with extra spaces.

Teachers figure to benefit from improved working conditions and potentially an increase in their compensation as schools compete for their services. Many teachers might derive greater job satisfaction from working in schools that families have freely chosen.

Reducing the public school share of student enrollment to 80 percent or even 75 percent, as opposed to the current 90 percent, should raise the quality of educational offerings. In addition to the spur to improve in order to compete for market share, the public schools could benefit from reduced class sizes and the departure of some special-needs students. The success of the McKay scholarships in Florida shows there are many families of “disabled” children who hanker for private, less-bureaucratized settings.

This proposal by Texas state Rep. Sid Miller (R-Stephenville), supported by a coalition of state and national organizations, should be the next big—indeed, Texas-sized—idea in school reform, one that would be equally valuable in a bad economy or boom times. As the evidence shows, choice would benefit all students in all schools, public or private.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.