Tuesday, December 17, 2002

School Choice Saves Schools Money

Brandon Dutcher makes a compelling case for why school choice could help ease the education budget crunch in Oklahoma. His arguments really apply nationwide, as most education budgets are in similar fiscal crisis.

Thanks to the government spending spree of the 1990s, Oklahoma is now experiencing its own fiscal unpleasantness. But consider how much worse the state’s budget crunch would be if private school parents and homeschoolers weren’t saving taxpayers a small fortune. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 1999-2000 private school survey, 31,276 students attend private elementary and secondary schools in Oklahoma. Informed estimates place the number of Oklahoma homeschoolers at 14,000 to 25,000.

So let’s say there are 50,000 Oklahoma schoolchildren whose parents are paying for their education. What would happen if these 50,000 kids showed up at their local public school tomorrow morning? (“I’m here for my free education, please.”) In order to maintain the current per pupil expenditure of $6,284 (of which 58 percent is state money, 32 percent local and county, and 10 percent federal), politicians would have to come up with a few hundred million more dollars every year. And that’s not counting construction costs. I’ve seen estimates of $15,000 to $35,000 per seat for a child in public school.

Just because the state provides for education doesn’t mean it has to produce all of it. Policy-makers should be glad so many parents are choosing to educate kids on their own nickel. Indeed, they should encourage this behavior by passing a modest tax credit, which would give parents more choices, reduce school overcrowding, and help ease the state budget crunch.

For example, let’s say a child is trapped in a school where she’s not learning to read or do math. There are several philanthropies – K-12 scholarship funds which help kids pay tuition at private and religious schools – which would love to help her, but they can only help a limited number of children. The demand for scholarships far exceeds supply.

Oklahoma policy-makers should allow a tax credit for individuals or businesses who donate money to these scholarship funds. Not only would this allow the philanthropies to rescue more kids, it also would help ease the state’s fiscal woes. An OCPA study released earlier this year (“The Oklahoma Scholarship Tax Credit: Giving Parents Choices, Saving Taxpayers Money”) pointed out that “when tuition scholarships enable students to transfer out of public schools into private ones, the state and local authorities have fewer pupils to educate and can therefore reduce expenditures accordingly. According to conservative projections, this tax credit could be saving Oklahoma taxpayers more than $138 million annually by 2012.”

Unfortunately, educrats always see the glass as half empty and see kids who choose alternatives as lost revenue. Kids who do not choose public schools are never saving the state money but instead costing them tax dollars.

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