Texas lawmakers are currently considering whether to enact legislation creating two educational choice programs: education savings accounts (ESAs) and tax-credit scholarships. Predictably, this has drawn the ire of groups interested in preserving the status quo.
In a recent report, Ann Beeson of the Center for Public Policy Priorities claims, “Vouchers – by any name – are bad for Texas children and their families.” Beeson lists the usual anti-choice talking points, but she fails to provide evidence to support her claims. Indeed, a comprehensive look at the research literature on the effects of educational choice policies paints a very different picture.
Educational Choice Benefits Students and Society
High-quality research consistently finds that choice programs produce statistically significant positive outcomes for participating students, including improved academic performance and higher graduation rates, especially for those from traditionally disadvantaged groups. Recently, a team of researchers from the University of Arkansas conducted a meta-analysis of random-assignment studies on private school choice programs across the globe and found that participants experience more growth academically, on average.
Educational choice policies also benefit students who remain in their district schools. Numerous high-quality studies of choice programs in four states and Washington, D.C., find modest but statistically significant improvements among students attending district schools that are subject to increased competition. Even though only some students actually participate in a choice program, all students benefit from the opportunity to participate because district schools know that they must meet their students’ needs in order to keep them.
The research also shows that educational choice programs also help desegregate schools, they save taxpayers money, reduce crime rates , and lead to greater levels of political tolerance and civic participation among students.
Beeson states that the program would “offer no real choice to low-income families, because the high cost of private tuition would not be fully covered by vouchers.” In reality, there are numerous private schools in Texas that charge tuition well within the range of the ESA amount. According to a recent EdChoice survey of Texas private schools, about 61 percent of private schools charge less than $6,000. Allowing for families to pay the difference between the ESA amount and tuition can be a good thing because it gives them “skin in the game” and an added incentive to monitor their child’s education.
The ESA Program Is Designed to Save Money
Beeson attempts to estimate the potential fiscal impact of the ESA program, but her approach is highly misleading. To estimate the cost to the district, she “calculated the financial loss to school districts by multiplying the number of economically disadvantaged students by the 2015 TEA statewide average cost per student ($9022), and then subtracting the one-time payback payment to the district for those students ($1128)” (footnote 1 here). This is not accurate.
She conveniently leaves out any savings that districts incur when students leave for any reason. In Texas, school districts keep a sizable portion of federal funds plus interest and sinking (I&S) funds for financing the districts’ facilities whenever a student leaves a school district for any reason. And under the ESA bill, school districts will also keep additional funds – half of the difference between the state average maintenance and operations (M&O) expenditures per student for the preceding fiscal year and the amount that a child receives for his/her ESA. In sum, districts would end up with more resources for fewer students when students leave its schools.
Moreover, the state will experience savings as well because the cost to the state to fund ESAs is worth less than total M&O expenditures per student: 90% ($7,500) of state and local M&O per student expenditures ($8,330) for children with special needs and 75% ($6,250) of M&O per student expenditures for low-income children.
It’s also not the case that students who remain in district schools will somehow be left behind, a legitimate concern by choice skeptics. Rather, research on the competitive effects of choice programs is generally positive – out of 30 studies that have examined the effects of private school choice programs on district school students, 29 found that district school students benefit and one study was unable to detect any effects.
When one considers the research on school choice, the claim that school choice “drains” resources from district schools and harms districts financially has not materialized. The reality is that school choice programs comprise a very small part of total resources devoted to K-12 education. Total expenditures on Texas K-12 district schools are $64.8 billion (or $12,264 per student). The estimated cost of the program, by Beeson’s estimates and ignoring any savings, represents between 0.3 percent and 1.7 percent of the K-12 budget.
Educational Choice: A Good Choice for Texas
Educational choice programs provide a way for states to invest in their K-12 education systems by expanding educational options for their families. One worthwhile goal of education policy should be to facilitate good matches between children and the kinds of education they receive rather than simply propping up a system that does not and cannot work for all children. Expanding educational options for Texan families is a necessary and common sense means for achieving this goal.
Martin F. Lueken, Ph.D. is the Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
Jason Bedrick is the Director of Policy at EdChoice.