Lost in the news last week was the announcement of a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against Kansas taxpayers in order to gain more funding for public schools. But now that the election is over, Kansans are starting to turn their attention to this lawsuit. So far, the discussion is missing something that could solve our problems without spending any additional money.
In its search to find a solution to the problem of funding its government schools, Kansas is overlooking a sure solution: widespread school choice.
While proponents of public school spending argue that school choice programs drain away dollars from needy, underfunded public schools, this is not the case.
In 2007 The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. According to the executive summary: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.”
How can this be? The public school spending lobby, which in Kansas is primarily the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA, the teachers union) and the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB), would have us believe that educational freedom would kill public education. They say that school choice program drain scarce resources from the public school system.
But when researchers looked at the actual effects, they found this: “In nearly every school choice program, the dollar value of the voucher or scholarship is less than or equal to the state’s formula spending per student. This means states are spending the same amount or less on students in school choice programs than they would have spent on the same students if they had attended public schools, producing a fiscal savings.”
So at the state level, school choice programs save money. They don’t cost money to implement; they save money.
At the local level, schools districts have more money, on a per-student basis, when school choice programs are used: “When a student uses school choice, the local public school district no longer needs to pay the instructional costs associated with that student, but it does not lose all of its per-student revenue, because some revenue does not vary with enrollment levels. Thus, school choice produces a positive fiscal impact for school districts as well as for state budgets.”
The problem is that while school choice programs save money for the state and its taxpayers, it reduces money flowing to the public, or government, schools. School spending advocates don’t like that. While these advocates, such as Mark Tallman, assistant executive director of the KASB, present themselves as advocates for Kansas schoolchildren, their true function is to direct as much spending as possible to Kansas public schools.
If we need evidence of the never-ending appetite of schools for money and what spending advocates like Tallman consider their mission, consider a story told by Kansas House Speaker Pro Tem Arlen Siegfreid (R-Olathe) of a conversation he had with Tallman: “During our discussion I asked Mr. Tallman if we (the State) had the ability to give the schools everything he asked for would he still ask for even more money for schools. His answer was, ‘Of course, that’s my job.’”
Besides full-fledged school choice, charter schools save money too. Kansas has one of the weakest charter school laws in the nation, described by the Center for Education Reform as a “law in name only.” As a result, there are very few charter schools in Kansas. That’s the way Tallman and other Kansas school spending advocates like it.
What is the outlook for the future? So far, I am not aware of any legislators who are proposing school choice or charter school legislation. While incoming governor Sam Brownback had an education plan as part of his campaign, he did not campaign on charter schools or teacher merit pay. School choice was not mentioned, either.
The danger over the next few years is that Kansas will waste its time fussing over a school financing formula that, in the end, still funds a government school monopoly at the exclusion of choice, even the mildest form of choice: charter schools. Consequently Kansas misses out on the improvement and diversity that choice brings. Brownback and the new conservative legislators should take this opportunity to radically reform Kansas education.