A Misleading Case for Private School Vouchers

by TFN

Late on Monday night, a Texas House committee took testimony on a massive school voucher bill that would siphon billions of tax dollars away from already cash-strapped public schools to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. This legislation was crafted as a proposed amendment (that never made it to the House floor) to budget legislation during the regular legislative session, but state Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, has re-filed it in the current special session as HB 33.

HB 33 doesn’t specifically mention vouchers, instead calling the scheme a “Taxpayer Savings Grant Program.” But make no mistake — this is a voucher program through and through. And not only is it huge (open to nearly every public school student in the state), it apparently would also force the state to be more generous in its per-student funding for private schools than it is for public schools.

The committee heard from a chorus of voucher proponents, most of whom are affiliated in one way or another with a conservative outfit called the Texas Public Policy Foundation (the same group that has been in the news this spring for pushing controversial and deeply ideological changes to the state’s institutions of higher education). Testifier after testifier touted the program as a panacea for the state’s budget woes, claiming the program would save the state billions of dollars over the coming years. But when the committee finally heard from someone who understood school finance — attorney David Thompson, spokesman for the Texas Association of School Administrators, Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas School Alliance — they learned that the math didn’t quite work out so favorably.

The bill, Thompson explained, says the voucher would be equal to 60 percent of the average state and local spending per-student expenditure in a year. Problem is, the state on average doesn’t pay 60 percent of that cost – local districts carry a bigger share.

“What this bill proposes to do is create a voucher with no accountability that is hundreds of dollars more on average than what the state has just proposed to spend on public school students.”

Yes, that’s right. According to Thompson, the bill would actually have the state of Texas (not counting local or federal funds) pay more for a student to attend a private school than a public school. Here’s the math (courtesy of Mr. Thompson):

Under the just-adopted HB1, the average state expenditure under the Foundation School Program for the coming biennium will be $2,922 per weighted student. Under HB33, the proposed voucher would be $3,971 per weighted student, for a difference of $1,049 per weighted student more for the voucher than for a student in the public schools.

Faced with this stunning news, the committee asked Rep. Miller to bring back more information on the fiscal impact of the bill.

The committee also heard from UT-San Antonio economics professor — and editor of the pro-voucher Journal for School Choice — John Merrifield, who co-authored a policy paper promoting Miller’s voucher plan. But much like the vanishing cost-savings promised by voucher supporters, Dr. Merrifield’s paper appears to also be built on sand. Dr. Ed Fuller, associate director of Research for the University Council of Educational Administration, has a helpful blog post methodically deconstructing Merrifield’s study, pointing out faulty data and dubious methodology underlying its conclusions. Fuller’s blog can be found here.

All of this might not matter in the end, since the House Efficiency & Reform committee likely has the votes necessary to pass this bill. But for now, the bill was left pending in committee while the author seeks a better fiscal note. We’ll keep you posted on HB 33 as it makes its way through the special session.