Senate Bill 276, aiming to expand opportunities for Texas students through vouchers may pass into legislation this session after years of setbacks by school choice opponents.
State Sen. Donna Campbell has introduced the “Taxpayer Savings Grant Program” in previous sessions, but is bolstering the argument for school choice with new cost-savings research.
Commissioned by the Texas Association of Business and Texas Public Policy Foundation, and released January, “The Texas Economy and School Choice” study analyzed TSGP and found that statewide school choice will reduce the dropout rate, close educational achievement gaps between races and income levels and increasing education performance.
Though the state has experienced economic prosperity in recent years, the education landscape reflects little improvement. Student enrollment has surpassed the state’s ability to house students and new schools are built between rows of portable classrooms. A small private school market and a statewide charter school cap further limit achievement.
Economic Advantages of Choice
If enacted in law, the TSG program would drive 60 percent of per pupil spending to the classroom. That applies to students moving outside of their local district. If tuition at a school is less than 60 percent, that would be the amount paid out, minimizing excessive spending.
The school comes out ahead and the state saves money, it’s a win-win, Campbell said.
John Merrifield, professor of economics at University of Texas at San Antonio, estimated the fiscal savings to taxpayers, accounting for participation and the difference between the state’s public schooling costs and the average payment to program participants’ chosen private school, to be about $2 billion.
“The main numbers are how little the real dollar tripling in per pupil spending since the mid-1960s has yielded in the way of performance change; close to zero,” Merrifield said. “That, alongside the obvious ‘one-size-cannot-fit-all’ fact, is why we need to change our funding and governance policies to be supportive of a dynamic diverse menu of schooling options. Since price controlled, government provision has never worked well for anything but defense and justice, we need the interaction of free enterprise and market-driven price change to orchestrate that dynamic, diverse menu.”
Researchers currently estimate about $2 billion saved over five years or $22 billion over 12 years, said Kent Grusendorf, senior fellow and director, Center for Education Freedom, Texas Public Policy Foundation.
According to the recent study, reform would increase Texas’ GDP and standard of living by 17 to 30 percent.
“Most people haven’t connected the dots between the constant increase in property taxes and spending in the public school system,” said Matthew Ladner, senior advisor of policy and research, Foundation for Excellence in Education. “Property taxes have increased much more than academic improvement in the state.”
“We spend billions every year on policies, laws to support the American dream – but it’s all focused in the adult world,” Campbell said. “We [need to] focus equal opportunity at the child’s level. It’s the cheapest, most efficient, most common sense approach to equal opportunity to provide equal education opportunity.”
Parents are for Choice
“Eighty-percent of Hispanic families in Texas support the right to choose the best school for their children,” Campbell said. “One-hundred and ten thousand school children are on waiting lists for charter schools, that’s evidence for demand of school choice.”
Innovative public schools have had great success with students and parents, Campbell said. However, such schools are few and far between.
The success of school choice in other states is not only proven economically, she said. “It has been realized in a decreased dropout rate, increased graduation rate, increase in test scores and even a decrease in disciplinary problems,” said Campbell.
“School choice opponents in Texas are constantly crying poor, it’s going to drain money – completely divorced from the reality of what’s going on on the ground in Texas public schools,” Ladner said. “Texas is ideally suited for choice.”
Likelihood of Passage
“The Texas legislature has a cautious streak to it, which has not served it well in K-12 reform,” said Ladner. “Texas was once a leader in K-12 reform, it no longer is. You can see the results of this in the nation report card scores, where Texas made some admirable gains but the last decade has plateaued, especially in reading.”
Former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Education Committee chair Sen. Dan Patrick issued joint statements in favor of school reform and charter school growth early in Dewhurst’s term, but major changes in education policy have yet to be enacted.
“Stakeholders in the current system don’t want any competition to their agenda,” Grusendorf said.
Recently elected Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick may make good on his education reform agenda.
New leadership elected into office since the last legislative session is favorable for the tax grant program’s passage, Grusendorf said.
“There are a lot of great lawmakers this session who would like to support all ideas for school kids,” Campbell said. “A lot of them realize we have to do something different. The current model is just not suited for all school children and parents should have a choice.”
“No other states have nearly adequate provisions for school choice; that is, a nearly level playing field between traditional public schools, and public and private alternatives to the assigned public school,” Merrifield said. “Texas Savings Grant plans would be appropriate anywhere, but large, universal tuition tax credit plans and education savings account plans would be even better. ‘Savings grants’ are obsolete as school choice vehicles, but still, much, much better than the public finance monopoly status quo present in all fifty states.”
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.
Image by Miran Rijavec.