School Choice has been an increasingly controversial issue since bills favoring a voucher system were introduced to the Texas legislature in the 1990s. Recently, the movement has picked up steam nationally, with twelve states and the District of Columbia currently implementing some sort of voucher or Education Savings Account (ESA) program (EdChoice.org). These bills essentially offer students who choose to enroll in private school or become home schooled vouchers or tax breaks for the equivalent funding that would have been spent on them in a public school.
Governor Greg Abbott has expressed his support for School Choice legislation this session. “I know Lt. Gov. Patrick and legislative leaders from both the House and the Senate have been working on a school choice law,” Abbott said at a School Choice Rally at the State Capitol in January. “I hope and I urge that that law reach my desk. And when it does, I will make the choice to sign it and authorize school choice in the state of Texas.” (Texas Tribune). With both Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick in support, this could potentially be the year Texas sees its first School Choice law.
According to the Public School Review, School Choice is an ongoing debate that has many benefits and disadvantages. The article details how School Choice programs give students that are zoned to worse schools more options for improving their education. In addition, it explains how a family is more likely to afford private schools if their tax dollars are not going to public school funding. Critics, based on a list of argument points from the article, claim that these programs favor the rich and will take an excessive amount of funding away from public schools. They also argue that education is a public good, and that even though some parents may choose to homeschool or send their children to private school, a solid public education system will benefit society as a whole.
Although this issue is multifaceted, I decided to determine whether states that have already implemented school choice programs have experienced state and local funding cuts to their public education systems. I compared these yearly changes in funding with the state of Texas to see if the implementation of school choice programs actually does have a negative effect on school funding.
Of the seven schools that have had school choice programs for long enough to see a change in school funding over time, results varied from state to state. I expected to see sharp drop offs in state and local funding the year after these programs were enacted, but that was only the case for certain states. In reality, the funding in many of the states either increased, like Texas, or remained consistent from year to year.
As a benchmark, public school funding in Texas has gradually increased over time. For example, between 2006 and 2014 State funding for public education in Texas increased by 65% and local funding increased by 23%. Although these numbers seem drastic, funding for both categories have only been increasing gradually since 2008 after spiking between 2006 and 2007.
Compared with some of the states which have implemented a voucher or ESA system, this gradual increase in funding is fairly similar. For example, Louisiana, which began a voucher system 2008, saw an increase in state funding for public education by 29% between 2006 and 2014. In addition, their local education funding increased by 43% in the same time span. There was a 7% decrease in State funding between 2009 and 2011, but the level of funding has since returned pre-voucher levels.
States like Alabama and North Carolina, which both implemented voucher systems in 2013, have not seen significant change in state or local funding since then. State and Local funding in Alabama increased by 3.1% and 3.8% respectively, which is similar to the average yearly increase in funding since 2006. In North Carolina, there was no significant increase in State funding and a 2% increase in local funding. Funding from both sources has been fairly stagnant since 2006, so these levels of funding do not represent a significant change.
Other states saw drops in overall funding for public education after the implementation of a voucher or ESA system. Florida, which implemented a voucher system in 2007, saw a 10% decrease in State funding between the beginning of the program and 2014. In addition, local funding dropped by 24% between 2007 and 2010, before rebounding back to pre-2007 levels in 2014. Wisconsin also saw a significant drop in funding after the beginning of their voucher program in 2011. Their local funding for public education dropped by 8% between 2011 and 2012.
In all fairness, state and local funding for public schools are determined by many factors other than the availability of tax dollars, such as the health of a state’s economy, the legislators in charge of budgets and school finance, and changes in property values. In theory, school finance is complex and vouchers would only affect it to a certain extent. However, this study intends to analyze overall funding changes, and cannot factor in these other aspects for the sake of simplicity.
Overall, the changes in public education funding for states which have implemented voucher or ESA systems have varied across the board. Some states, such as Louisiana, saw increases in funding after the implementation of a voucher policies, while others, such as Wisconsin and Florida, saw slight drops in funding. At this point, the cases of other states are too varied to get a good idea of what would happen if Texas adopted a School Choice policy. That being said, Texas schools rank 49th in funding per student in the US, and voucher programs may not be worth the risk of lowering this funding even more. We can say for sure however, that, based on this data, vouchers are not necessarily the death sentence for school funding that opponents of School Choice have made them out to be. It could be possible for Texas to follow in the footsteps of Louisiana and balance school choice programs with an adequate education budget. One thing we can be certain of is that the School Choice debate will continue to be a divisive issue in the State of Texas for years to come.