Progressive school choice benefits nearly everyone

Mark Loewe, Ph. D. Physics, Austin, Texas, 4 August 1998
(This article appeared in The Daily Texan, 4 August 1998.)

Children and teachers nationwide are suffering due to the limitation that only tuition-free government schools are allowed to receive public education funds.  This unnecessary limitation deters parents from donating money to improve their childrens' education, results in the loss of tens-of-billions of private dollars per year from our education system, and stifles free-market innovation and accountability.  Progressive school choice can resolve these problems with maximum benefits for poor children.

Tuition-free schools that split the benefits of private donations among many children, perhaps hundreds of children, do miserable jobs of attracting donations from parents.  Out of every dollar a parent donates to a tuition-free school the beneficial value for his child is usually less than 10 cents and perhaps less than one cent.

Schools that charge tuition dramatically increase the incentives for parents to donate because such schools offer benefits for each child that are of comparable value to the tuition.  The deterrent against parental donations to such schools is due to the limitation that, if parents choose not to enroll their children in government schools, then their children lose all benefits from roughly $5,000 of public funding per child.

This deterrent is heavy and regressive.  Even a rich parent who can afford a $10,000 tuition may decide to save his money for other purposes rather than lose the public funding.  A poor parent may not be able to afford even the least expensive tuition, in which case the only "choice" is to donate to a private tutor.  Tutors, however, are expensive, have difficulty getting schools to coordinate on curricula, and have trouble proving their worth by providing student achievement and placement statistics.

Progressive school choice would provide voucher schools with public funds equal to, say, 75 percent of the public funds that government schools receive per weighted child.  It would also allow each voucher school to charge tuition as long as the school's public funds are further reduced by, say, 25 percent of any private funds it receives.  For example, if government schools were to receive $6,000 in public funds (per weighted child), then voucher schools that receive no private funds would receive $4,500 in public funds, voucher schools that receive $500 in private funds would receive $4,375 in public funds, and voucher schools that receive $10,000 in private funds would receive only $2,000 in public funds.

Progressive school choice would reduce by thousands of dollars per child the private funds needed for tuition, with the greater reductions at the lower tuitions.  Rich parents, poor parents, businesses, other private sources, and voucher schools (through partial tuition waivers) would be better able to afford the remaining tuition, if any.  This would empower parents, especially poor parents, to choose and donate to safer schools that better serve their childrens' individual needs, abilities, and interests.  Increased competition would empower businesses to choose and donate to schools with innovative programs that respond more cost-effectively to the workforce needs of businesses.  It is conceivable that our education system would benefit from 50 billion additional private dollars per year, an average of $1,000 per child over our roughly 50 million school children.

The government would save 25 percent on each child who transfers from a government school to a voucher school and 25 percent on private funds attracted by voucher schools.  Reduced enrollments in government schools would also reduce pressures to expand or build new government schools.  The net savings would amount to tens-of-billions of dollars per year even after accounting for public funds spent to benefit children who transfer to voucher schools from home schools or ineligible private schools.  (Private schools that discriminate based on any child's race, sex, or religion would be ineligible.)  These savings could be used to increase funds for children who remain in government schools and to increase the vouchers to provide greater school choice.

Classroom teachers would enjoy higher salaries and better working conditions.  Salaries would increase due to the tens-of-billions of dollars of increased funding and due to shifts in spending away from wasteful programs and top-heavy administration.  Working conditions would improve because teachers could more easily choose to work at, or even start up, schools that more effectively employ their abilities and interests, promote learning, and, if necessary, remediate disruptive behavior.

Progressive school choice does not raise or lower taxes; it is easy to implement together with whatever portfolio of federal, state, and local taxes is used to generate public education funds and together with whatever ways the tax revenues are split among states and districts.  Individual states and districts can adopt different "voucher" and "progressive" percentages, learn from the market responses, and adjust their percentages to maximize educational opportunities.

Progressive school choice is also easy to implement regardless of the roles parents, teachers, schools, districts, legislatures, Congress, and the courts play in determining voucher school curricula.

Implementing progressive school choice is the best step we can take to improve our education system.  Parents, teachers, school boards, business leaders, and legislators can all play important roles in supporting progressive school choice.