Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On not understanding school choice

One of the oddest arguments made about school choice is, as argued here, that it is a "subsidy for the wealthy ..." and somehow enriches ... well, I'm not sure who.

In a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column, Christian Schneider pointed out that money sent to educate choice students in private schools do not necessarily "cost" the public schools anything. This is because, if the choice program were eliminated, not only tax dollars would return to the public schools. So would the students. Depending on what it would cost the public schools to educate these students, the end of choice would not benefit public schools at all.

Properly managed public schools should lose money only if the marginal cost of educating students lost to schools participating in the choice program exceeds the revenue lost as a result of their departure. Poorly managed public schools with large fixed costs - say districts with huge unfunded legacy costs paying substantial sums to persons who no longer work there or who have large entrenched bureaucracies - may lose money. But that's because those districts need state revenue in excess of the cost of educating current students to pay retiree payments or administrators now serving fewer students.

This is incontestably true, but seems to be a hard concept for choice critics to understand or, at least, to respond to. So the argument is often made that school choice is some sort of "privatization" (it is in one sense, but not in another) that "enriches" somebody. Foundations such as Bradley, Walton or DeVos that spend a lot of money to promote parental choice are said not to "care about" poor kids although, if they don't, just who they do care about it and why they are spending millions of dollars to direct money to poor families is unclear.

It is certainly not students and their families are enriched. In Wisconsin, a family's income must be at the poverty level to participate in the statewide program and no more that 3 x the poverty limit to participate in Milwaukee. It's certainly not school operators. Asking schools to educate kids for amounts well below the average spent in public schools is not a recipe for building wealth. (To be sure, one may be able to find examples of school operators misusing funds but public funds get misused as well. Sadly, such is human nature.)

One might make the argument that taxpayers have been "enriched" because children in choice schools receive an education for less than they do in public schools. Although evidence is limited, these kids seem to do at least as well if not better on some measures.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.


Anonymous said...

give me a break.

I have no children and I pay for schools.

I do not want to pay for somebody to send their kids to a private or religious school.

let's work on making the public schools better.

if somebody wants to send their kid to a private or religious school that's okay with me. they should pay for both. private and public.

Anonymous said...

When the Governor proposed a statewide expansion of the voucher program in his last Budget, he said that the program was needed in order to "help students escape failing public schools."

As the Republican legislature returned the Budget to the Governor, this provision had been modified so that students currently attending private schools around the state could apply. The Governor did not use his partial veto power to return the provision to what he said was his original intent.

The result? The vast majority of the students who are participating in the new statewide voucher program were already private school students.

The result is also a decrease in the general school aid appropriation, which means that every district in the state lost money to pay for this new entitlement program.

You ignore this part of the equation, Mr. Esenberg.

Anonymous said...

Do you get to fire the fifth grade teacher if one fifth grader takes a voucher and leaves? Or do you just have the same costs and less money?

The marginal costs are obviously chunky - they come classroom by classroom. Administrators could manage this dynamic more easily in a large district than a small one - if you have only one fifth grade classroom, you're stuck.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1, if a student wasn't in the public school, the public school wasn't getting equalization aid before the statewide voucher program, and they're not getting equalization aid afterward. That's not a loss.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2, you miss the point completely. Most of the statewide voucher students -- something like 80% -- are already in private schools. When the tuition money comes from the state instead of their parents, those payments reduce the school aid "pot" used to provide revenue to the state's public school districts. So, yes, this is a loss of revenue to the districts. This shouldn't be that hard for you to follow.

Rick Esenberg said...

Anon 2:02 and 12:53

I don't ignore that part of the equation but there are three things to keep in mind. First, it's nonresponsive to my point about "enrichment." These children are from families at the poverty level. We would normally not say that someone who now receives food stamps is "enriched" because she managed to eat before.

Second, while the majority of students in the token statewide program came from private schools that is not true for the choice program as a whole. If there was no MPCP, the overwhelming majority of the 27,000 children using vouchers would come into MPS.

Third, I think your response to Anon 6:44 is wrong. The state wide program is funded entirely out of general revenue and not from the amounts appropriated for equalization aid. You cannot assume that, in the absence of statewide choice, more would be appropriated for equalizationa aid, although that is certainly possible.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Esenberg, no one is talking about doing away with the Milwaukee program. No one. That is a red herring. What we are talking about is the new statewide voucher program which was "sold" by the Governor as one thing and transformed by the Legislature into something quite different.

Rationalized as a way to "get children out of failing public schools" outside of Milwaukee, the Legislature transformed it into a mechanism to prop up religious schools.

When you go across the state, the vast majority of families are pleased with their public schools. When the public schools in a community upset the taxpayers, the heads of the school board members are rolled at the next election and the problem is solved.

What the Legislature created and the Governor signed into law is a vehicle, when expanded, which will convert most of the private school seats across the state into state-paid seats. If you think that won't lead to a decrease in overall aid to public schools, a drug addict would enjoy having what you are smoking.

Anonymous said...

Just one more comment,

I know for a fact that school board members are pulling their hair out over school choice.

The students leave the district, Palmyra schools, and the district has to make up the dollars they leave and take with them.

Now every district has a referendum to make up those dollars and guess what we the tax payers pay for it.

So, it is just like me paying for them to go to private or religious schools.

the money should stay in the district , so my taxes do not have to be raised.