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School choice and state spending on schools

States like Kansas that are struggling to balance budgets could use school choice programs as a way to save money.

When states consider implementing school choice programs, a common objection is that the state can’t afford school choice. Public school spending interest groups will tell legislators that school choice programs drain money from already under-funded public schools. School choice, they will say, is a luxury the state can’t afford, much less local school districts.

Research shows, however, that school choice programs can be constructed in a way that does not harm local school districts. Simply: A typical Kansas school district has variable costs of $8,709 per student. If such a district loses a student and associated funding, as long as that funding is less than $8,709, the district’s fiscal situation is improved. Base state aid in Kansas is $3,852, although state spending per student is $7,088 (2013 to 2014 school year). So it’s quite likely that any student who leaves a public school for any reason, including attending a private school or home school, improves the fiscal standing of the district, on a per student basis.

At the state level, a similar dynamic applies, although the reasoning is easier to follow: If the state funds that follow the child are less than average state spending per student, the state has the opportunity to save. The savings can be large, if states are willing to embrace choice programs.

Savings from school voucher programs, from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Click for larger version.
Savings from school voucher programs, from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Click for larger version.
In the report The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?, prepared for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the author finds that from 1991 to 2011, voucher programs alone have saved state governments a cumulative $1.7 billion. While representing just a small portion of total state spending, this total is from the ten states that had voucher programs in effect at the time of the study. In 2011 about 70,000 students were in these voucher programs.

The key understanding is that when student enrollment declines — for whatever reason — schools see reduced costs. For those who deny that, there is a corollary:

Opponents claim, simplistically, that school choice drains money from the public school system. That rhetoric obscures an important fact: A public school is also relieved of a cost burden for any student switching to private school. By not acknowledging such variable cost savings, opponents implicitly argue that all public school costs are “fixed.” By extension, they then conclude that the loss of funding for a student using a voucher to transfer to a private school harms all the remaining students at the affected public school. But that argument strains credulity: If there were no savings when a public school’s enrollment declines, logic dictates there would be no additional costs for schools when their enrollment grows.

It may be that costs do not decrease (or rise) smoothly as enrollment declines: “That phenomenon reflects the reality that schools must fund classrooms, not students.” Many businesses face this cost structure and are able to adapt, and it should be no different for schools.

An important note is that as students leave a school and its cost burden falls, the school must actually take steps to reduce spending in response to the reduced cost burden it experiences.

A problem is that critics of school choice may notice that no money has been saved after school choice programs are implemented. This is because “savings are typically reallocated to other spending, either directly or indirectly.” It is not uncommon for public schools to be held fiscally harmless for declining enrollments. The net effect is that public schools are paid for students that are no longer enrolled, and that absorbs the savings due to school choice. The cost savings are there; but are still spent on schools rather than spent elsewhere, saved, or returned to taxpayers.

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