A Misleading Case for Private School Vouchers

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.

7 thoughts on “A Misleading Case for Private School Vouchers

  1. But you know what, what if it did pass, Perry signs it, and it goes into effect? I know that sounds frightening to some, but it might also be a blessing in disguise.

    Everyone with half a brain knows that kids fail in school because they are dumber than dirt, have troubled home lives, no motivation, no internal gumption—and usually outright laziness (or various combinations of the foregoing). Add to that parents that could care less what their kid learns or even if they learn anything. These are the parents and kids that will be demanding vouchers—the people who do not realize that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Let them leave the public schools and drive some Christian fundamentalist or private school teacher out of her mind. The teacher will learn fast that the vouchers were a bad idea, and the students/parents will learn quickly that pieces of paper and a different kind of school are just another blank canvas to crap up with dirt, dumb, and graffiti.

    Meanwhile, with all of the miscreants gone from the public schools, those good kids and parents left behind will be sending the SAT and ACT scores all the way out to Pluto. Sounds like heaven in the public schools to me.

  2. Has TFN looked into these publicly-financed Texas charter schools? Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas

    Considering the antipathy toward teaching evolution present in Turkey and Texas, and the schools’ emphasis on teaching math and science, I’m wondering if TFN has examined the science curriculum.

  3. Alanis Morisette may have missed the definition of ironic in her 90’s hit, but how ironic that an organization touting freedom in it’s very name would oppose giving families the freedom to choose how to educate their children…

    1. We oppose nothing of the kind. Families have the right to educate their children however they see fit — public, private or home school. But taxpayers shouldn’t be required to subsidize their private school tuition, especially when public schools are already underfunded. Indeed, HB 33 would have the state spend more money to subsidize tuition for a student in private school than it would spend for a student in public school. That’s absurd.

  4. There should be a plan for private school or christan school vouchers the tax payer pays from their home to districts and from federal taxes the schools are unsafe the spend millions on cameras plus because of unsafe conditions the people should have a say about education for their children, and if they want private schools.
    where are the bright people in accounting.

  5. Wow…I am a tax payer who just recently pulled my child out of public schools because of how “dumbed down” the programs are for the Pre AP and AP students due to the huge influx of “undocumented” students in our school district. I am paying a huge ISD tax bill and I am not getting a return on my money for my child or any of the other english speaking students. Should I not be able to use my ISD tax dollars to find a school that can support my child’s education so that she can actually be prepared for college? That’s all I am looking for. Let me use my school tax dollars towards finding the right fit for my child. Oh, I forget……it is my responsibility to pay for the education of every “undocumented” child. I am not prejudice, just very frustrated that there is no accountability for the tax dollars spent. What about my child being left behind? I am now paying huge ISD taxes and paying out of pocket for every penny of her education which is currently over a $1000.00 a semester.

  6. The reason why public schools are so extremely under funded is because half the students who are attending them are undocumented. For example, what happens when you have 10 people paying for 10 plates at a restraunt but have 20 people eating and the restraunt has to feed all 20? The 10 people are still left hungry after paying there part and the restraunt is full with only 50% paying customers. Guess what your left with? A bunch of hungry people in a restraunt where no “paying” customers appetite is satisfied, a restraunt that is only bringing in half of what they are putting out. Only a short amount of time before they are in huge debt and bankrupt! and that in a nut shell is our countries entire financial problem. FREE LOADERS