Is Educational Choice Conservative?


School ChoiceYesterday, Texas lawmakers held hearings about expanding educational choice in the Lone Star State. Perhaps the most prominent proposal was an education savings account (ESA), which would allow families to take a portion of the state funds that would have been spent on their child in their assigned district school and instead use them on private school tuition, tutoring, text books, online courses, homeschool materials, and more. Parents could roll over unused funds from year to year to save for later educational expenses, including college. Because ESAs offer spending flexibility and the ability to save–which creates an incentive to economize–they are an improvement on traditional school vouchers.

However, a Republican member of the State Board of Education, Thomas Ratliff, offered the following objection to the proposed ESAs:

“It is nothing more than a huge handout with no way to control the price tag — hardly a conservative idea,” Ratliff said.

He noted that it takes $8,500 of taxpayer money per student per year just to provide basic support, not counting buildings and equipment. To come from one family, the family either would have to have a $700,000 home or spend $120,000 a year on items subject to sales tax, Ratliff said.

“There are no savings in these accounts,” he said. “There are donations from the elderly couple next door that has no kids and from the local business down the street that pays their property tax.”

Of course, if you follow the logic, this is really an argument against public schooling, period. A low-income family with two kids isn’t paying enough taxes to cover their per-pupil expenditures at their assigned district school. And it’s not like the state is controlling the number of children who are born in Texas or move to the state, so the price tag is just as “unfettered” as the ESA. Is a member of the State Board of Education really arguing that the state of Texas should stop funding district schools?

In fact, taxpayers do save money from the ESAs. ESAs grant parents only a portion of the state funds that would have been spent on their child at his or her assigned district school, and they include none of the federal or local funding. That means the “elderly couple next door” and “local business down the street” are spending much less per pupil on ESA students than they otherwise would have.

I don’t know what Mr. Ratliff thinks is a “conservative idea,” but a program that expands educational opportunity, empowers families, provides market alternatives to a moribund government bureaucracy, improves performance, and saves money while doing so sounds pretty conservative to me.

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  1. EdPolaski Inactive

    Jason Bedrick:

    EdPolaski: If you don’t like, say, your local Kyrene elementary school or any of the charter alternatives, and you can afford a private school, I don’t think anyone should get a tax credit for paying your kid’s private school tuition. That’s really the entirety of my point. And it’s also based largely on 2016 budget and education realities – in a more perfect world, I might feel differently.

    But why is that any different from taxpayers picking up the tab at the district school or a charter school? If the state is going to be in the business of funding kids’ educations, why shouldn’t the money just follow the child? (Or, at least, provide tax incentives that have the net effect of saving the state money while expanding educational opportunity.) Shouldn’t conservatives favor a system that fosters a market and empowers families over a system that is dominated by a government monopoly?

    In the reality that is 2016 in AZ, where AZ public schools can’t pay teachers enough to keep the jobs filled, I don’t think the system should be concerned with empowering rich families to get religious education. Whether that’s conservative or not.

    • #31
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