Progressive school choice (Progressive vouchers)

Mark Loewe, Ph. D. Physics, Austin, Texas, 25 December 2000

Children and teachers are harmed by the limitation that only tuition-free government schools are allowed to receive public education funds.  This unnecessary limitation stifles free-market innovation and accountability, imposes a heavy and regressive deterrent against private funding of schools that charge tuition,[1][2] results in the loss of tens-of-billions of private dollars per year from our K-12 education system, and wastes tens-of-billions of public dollars per year.  Progressive school choice can resolve these problems with maximum benefits for poor children.

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.[3]  It would also allow a voucher school to charge tuition as long as the voucher school's public funds are further reduced by, say, 25 percent of any private funds the voucher school receives.[4]  For example, if government schools receive 6,000 public dollars (per weighted child per year), then voucher schools that receive no private dollars would receive 4,500 public dollars, voucher schools that receive 400 private dollars would receive 4,400 public dollars, ..., voucher schools that receive 10,000 private dollars would receive 2,000 public dollars, and so on.  The government would save $1,500, $1,600, ..., $4,000, respectively.

                      Private    Public     Combined     District
                      dollars    dollars    dollars      savings

  Government schools              6,000                       0

  Voucher schools          0  +   4,500  =   4,500        1,500
        "                400  +   4,400  =   4,800        1,600
        "                800  +   4,300  =   5,100        1,700
        "              1,200  +   4,200  =   5,400        1,800
        "              1,600  +   4,100  =   5,700        1,900
        "              2,000  +   4,000  =   6,000        2,000
        "               ...        ...        ...          ...
        "              4,000  +   3,500  =   7,500        2,500
        "              6,000  +   3,000  =   9,000        3,000
        "             10,000  +   2,000  =  12,000        4,000
  Voucher schools     18,000  +       0  =  18,000        6,000

Compared to this example of progressive school choice, a monopoly of tuition-free government schools takes 2,000 public dollars away from voucher schools that receive 10,000 private dollars and takes more than 4,400 public dollars away from voucher schools that receive less than 400 private dollars.  By depriving voucher schools of public funds, such a monopoly reduces the quality of education available in voucher schools, heavily deters enrollment in and private contributions to voucher schools,[1][2] and deprives children in government schools of substantial savings.  Such a monopoly harms the choices of education available to rich children and devastates the choices of education available to poor children!

Progressive school choice would reduce the private funds needed for tuition by thousands of dollars per child, with the greatest reductions at the lowest 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.[5]  This would empower parents, especially poor parents and parents of children with special needs,[3] to choose and spend money on safer schools that better serve the individual needs, abilities, and interests of their children.  Increased competition would empower businesses to choose and donate to schools with innovative programs that successfully respond to workforce needs.  It is conceivable that our education system would benefit from 60 billion additional private dollars per year, an average of $1,000 per child over our roughly 60 million school children.

The government would save 25 percent on each child who transfers from a government school to a voucher school and save 25 percent on private funds attracted by voucher schools.  Reduced enrollments in government schools would reduce pressures to expand or build new government schools.  If facilities become underused, then older facilities could be sold or leased to voucher schools in order to generate revenue.  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 private schools that are ineligible to receive public funds.[6]  These savings could be used to increase funds for children who attend government schools, to increase funds for children who attend voucher schools, and to stem tax increases on businesses and the general public.

Classroom teachers would enjoy higher salaries and better working conditions.  Salaries would rise due to the tens-of-billions of dollars of additional private funding and due to shifts in spending away from top-heavy administration and wasteful programs.  Working conditions would improve because teachers could more easily choose to work at, or even start up, schools that more productively employ their talents, promote learning, and, when 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 school districts.  Individual states and districts can adopt different voucher school funding percentages, learn from the market responses, and adjust their percentages to maximize educational opportunities.

Progressive school choice is easy to implement regardless of the roles parents, teachers, school boards, legislatures, Congress, and the courts play in determining curricula.  It would also reduce costly lawsuits involving parents, teachers, and others who are unhappy with one-size-fits-all policies imposed on, and implemented by, government school monopolies.

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.
[1]  Tuition-free schools (government or not) 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 or her child is usually less than ten cents and perhaps less than one cent.  This deterrent, which is nearly total, does not occur at schools that charge tuition because such schools offer benefits to each child that are of comparable value to the tuition.

The deterrent against parental spending on schools that charge tuition is due to the limitation that, if parents choose not to enroll their children in tuition-free government schools, then their children lose all benefits from roughly 6,000 public dollars per child.  Even a rich parent who can afford $10,000 for tuition may decide to save his or her money for other purposes rather than lose all of the public funds.  A poor parent may not be able to afford even the least expensive tuition.  (One "choice" may be to spend private dollars on private tutors; tutors, however, may have high hourly rates, difficulties getting schools to coordinate on curricula, and trouble proving their value by providing student achievement and placement statistics.)  A loss of all of the $6,000 constitutes a large percentage loss from the combined private and public funding for a child:

  Private   Public     Combined    Percentage
  dollars   dollars    dollars        lost

       0  +  6,000  =   6,000        100.0
     200  +  6,000  =   6,200         96.8
     400  +  6,000  =   6,400         93.7      ( = 100 x 6000/6400)
     800  +  6,000  =   6,800         88.2
   1,200  +  6,000  =   7,200         83.3
   2,000  +  6,000  =   8,000         75.0
   4,000  +  6,000  =  10,000         60.0
   6,000  +  6,000  =  12,000         50.0
  10,000  +  6,000  =  16,000         37.5      ( = 100 x 6000/16000)

These loss percentages show that a monopoly of tuition-free government schools imposes a heavy deterrent against parental spending on schools that charge tuition.  Moreover, this deterrent is very regressive:  as private dollars approach zero, the loss percentage approaches 100 percent!  The proposed version of progressive school choice reduces and equalizes the loss percentage down to only 25 percent!

[2]  Extending school choice only to other tuition-free schools (government or not) would result in fewer children enrolled in private schools that charge tuition and, unfortunately, higher government costs and a loss of private funds from our education system.

[3]  Voucher schools, like government schools, would receive more public funds to serve children who have higher funding weights.  This is an incentive for voucher schools to specialize in serving blind and other special needs children who may be poorly served by government schools or institutions.

[4]  This is the progressive provision.  This provision has the great advantage of permitting the eligibility of all children without the great trouble of applying wealth tests to individual children or their families.

[5]  At many private schools tuition is less than half what government schools receive per child.

[6]  Private schools that discriminate based on a child's religion, race, or sex, or that do not administer annual academic achievement tests whose statistical results are made public, would be ineligible to receive public funds.  When choosing among schools to receive public funds, a parent (or persons the parent trusts) must have the opportunity to consider (but may ignore) the results of at least one universal set of tests.