By Greg Forster
Keeping up with the myths people throw around in Oklahoma and elsewhere about school choice is a full time job. It can be tedious; sometimes I wish the defenders of the status quo were more creative, just to keep my work interesting. On the bright side, since they can’t use sound facts and logic to defend their position, at least I’ll never be out of work!
Last time I wrote about school choice myths in this space, I looked at how the Oklahoma Education Coalition and Oklahoma edu-blogger Rob Miller were trying to fight the state’s embrace of the school choice revolution with some of the most common myths: that school choice is costly for taxpayers (the research consistently shows it saves money) and that it doesn’t improve educational outcomes (the research consistently finds it does). Sadly, Miller also indulged the all-too-common myth that poor parents are lazy and shiftless, and can’t be trusted to make good choices for their kids.
Alas, that doesn’t exhaust the school choice myths in Oklahoma. Writing in Community Spirit magazine in August, publisher Tom McCloud manages to hit the golden oldies (costly to taxpayers, no better results) as well as a bunch of others. Let’s look at the two arguments he stresses most.
McCloud claims school choice drains money from public schools, causing them to fail. “Public schools, already in financial peril, could not support their current infrastructure or the standards we have placed upon them if many of their dollars are siphoned off to fund private schools.”
There are so many errors packed into this single sentence, it’s hard to unpack them all. Let’s start with “already in financial peril.” The U.S. Department of Education says Oklahoma spends $8,851 per student in public schools. Given the state’s low cost of living and comparatively low incidence of the major social problems that complicate education, that should be plenty of funding. If the schools can’t teach kids for that much, something is wrong and it isn’t lack of funding.
Note, too, the idea that imposing any kind of educational standard raises costs. The argument here is that schools have a right to demand more money from us if we ask them to actually teach their students, i.e., perform the only function for which they exist. Apparently McCloud regards the first $8,851 per student as the cost of babysitting services. Teaching costs extra.
McCloud’s central error, however, is that school choice has a negative fiscal impact on public schools. The logic here is flawed. If you decide to get your appendix taken out at St. Jude’s Hospital instead of St. Paul’s, did you “siphon money” from St. Paul’s? No; you didn’t pay them, but you didn’t impose any costs on them, either.
However, public schools have it better than hospitals. When a student leaves a public school through a school choice program, the school loses all the costs associated with teaching that student—but only some of the revenues, not all of them. The school will lose state funds, which are tied to student headcount; but not local funds, which are raised by property taxes and disbursed to schools regardless of student headcount.
McCloud’s gestures toward “infrastructure” are meant to answer this. The idea is that schools have some costs that aren’t variable per student—they have to keep the lights on, etc. But Benjamin Scafidi did a national study and found that 64 percent of school costs are variable per student; in Oklahoma he found 69 percent are variable. Since the revenue lost to choice programs is typically well below that, choice programs are a net fiscal gain for public schools.
This windfall may be one reason why, contrary to McCloud’s scaremongering, public schools perform better when exposed to school choice. Of the 34 empirical studies that have been conducted, 32 find that public schools have better academic outcomes because of school choice. One reason is the competitive pressure to improve, but another may be improved budgets.
McCloud also claims that private schools typically don’t participate in choice programs, so the programs don’t actually provide access to choices: “The typical private school historically hasn’t wanted to ‘participate.’ They don’t want the ties to the state or federal governments, which could potentially demand that they change such things as their admission policies, curriculum, and religious activity requirements.”
I’ve seen a lot of versions of this myth. Usually the claim is that private schools are highly selective and only want to take the “good” kids. At one point in the article, McCloud reverts to this more typical form of the myth: “Since private schools can set their own entrance requirements, they would conceivably take only the top students.”
This is false. A typical American private school is an urban religious school that was founded for the purpose of serving an ethnically, economically, and academically diverse population. They love school choice precisely because it empowers poorer and lower-performing children to access the education that they want to provide those students. They welcome all these kids with open arms.
Experience bears this out. Analyses of choice programs typically find no evidence of any “upward” academic or demographic selection effect, and occasionally find evidence in the other direction. Choice programs are there to serve the poorest and most struggling students when public schools fail them.
McCloud’s main claim, however, is even more false—and easier to refute with numbers. Private schools flock to school choice programs! In Oklahoma, 85 schools participate in the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. Choice programs from Arizona (338 schools) to Florida (1,678) to Indiana (318) have consistently high rates of participation from private schools. You can look up how many private schools are participating in all 61 U.S. school choice programs at http://bit.ly/ChoiceSchools.
In fact, it was a shock to the education world when Louisiana created a choice program a few years ago and fewer than one-third of eligible private schools participated. We had never seen that happen before. Poor program design and hostile signals from state and federal regulators made this program a uniquely bad deal for private schools. So they didn’t take it, in sharp contrast to every other program in the country.
The real agenda behind this myth is to scare private schools away from choice programs with the boogeyman of state control. In fact, modern school choice programs have been around since 1990, and while it’s true that some programs have requirements they shouldn’t have, interference with school autonomy has been relatively limited. In fact, school choice programs create a powerful new public constituency supporting private school autonomy.
The funniest thing in the article is where McCloud mocks the emergence of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and then complains about precisely the problem ESAs solve. After making fun of the choice movement for switching from vouchers to ESAs—because apparently it’s a bad sign if you’re willing to move from a good idea to a better one—McCloud asserts that “vouchers would inflate the cost of private education.”
Indeed, vouchers do inadvertently raise private school tuition. That is one reason the movement is switching from vouchers to ESAs, which allow parents to buy education services without creating an artificial tuition floor for schools. It’s also true that even ESAs raise economic demand for education services in general—but that’s just another way of saying they empower parents to pay for those services!
McCloud’s article provides a public service in one respect: It collects almost all the school choice myths in one place. Maybe I don’t mind so much if the defenders of the status quo make my job easy after all.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness. He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.