Adding up the Benefits of Education Options

Proposals in the Georgia General Assembly to give Georgia families more opportunities to choose schools and educational settings for their children have come under fire, including in a recent newspaper column by University of North Georgia professor T. Jameson Brewer.

Among his arguments, Brewer claims vouchers defund public schools. But when a student leaves a public school district – for any reason – not all dollars follow. Specifically, funding from local taxpayers is not allocated on a per-pupil basis. When a public school district loses students via private school choice – or for any reason, such as moving to another district – it retains locally generated funding and a significant portion of federal funding, such as funding for special-needs students. A portion of latter is based on “the number of children in the general population,” not the student count in public schools. So public schools get to retain large portions of funds for students they no longer serve.

To my knowledge, no other enterprise in America gets to retain a significant portion of funds for customers they no longer serve, including universities and Georgia Pre-Ks. As another example, if you switch from Kroger to Walmart, Kroger does not get to keep 20% of your future grocery bill to cover its “fixed costs.” Yet public schools get to keep an even higher proportion of student funding than that when they lose students for any reason.

Second, notwithstanding claims that private schools exacerbate racial segregation, six of seven studies on integration (from three states and the D.C. scholarship program) find private school choice programs have improved school integration while the seventh study finds no visible effect. These studies, from a variety of researchers, can be found: here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Meanwhile, public school segregation has been increasing or lagged improvements in neighborhood integration. While American society has been integrating in neighborhoods, adoption, marriage, voting and other respects, public schools have been the anomaly.

There is some evidence that private schools are no better than – or even modestly lag – public schools in terms of test score gains, but it is worth noting the tests are designed to match public school curricula and private schools have a lower average cost. Considering that tests are designed to match public school offerings and they have higher expenditures per student, public schools should blow private schools away in terms of test scores. Yet overall, the balance of evidence suggests they do not. See, for example, here, here and here. Furthermore, substantial evidence demonstrates parents value other amenities of education options, including safety, later success in college, values, etc.

Arguing that private schools are not beholden to public accountability is silly. Each parent who sends a child to a private school is a member of the public who holds that school accountable. When a student leaves a private school, all funding for that student leaves the private school as well, unlike the case when students leave public schools.

It may be that “public accountability” is a reference to “government accountability.” Public schools are “accountable” to myriad elected and unelected government officials: the president, Congress, state officials, courts at three levels of government, school boards, superintendents, principals, assistant principals, etc. Private schools are accountable to … parents.

That said, when was the last time a school was closed because it was ineffective? How many teachers lose their jobs over the “high stakes” tests their students take? When has performance negatively affected the finances of any public school or district? The fact is, while some metrics have improved in public education, meaningful accountability – consequences – has not followed.

Brewer also charges that education choice programs violate both the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and language in the Georgia State Constitution that is akin to Blaine provisions inserted into many state constitutions over a century ago. Many observers, including the U.S. Supreme Court, noted that these Blaine provisions were “born of bigotry” and are “grotesque.” The U.S. Supreme Court also discounted such arguments as Brewer’s – twice.

Finally, Brewer cited an inequity in funding in public schools along racial lines. My own research also has noted a related disparity. Christopher Jencks, a renowned social scientist and a strong progressive proponent of the Great Society, wrote in 1966 that it was past time to solely focus on inequities in the public education system, because these inequities has been present for far too long. He suggested, back then, that it was time to try choice in K-12 education.

Today, Jencks’ case is even stronger. There are inequities in the public education that have been stubbornly persistent for decades. It is time to try something else. The longstanding inequities in the public education system are an argument to give families more opportunities outside that system.

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