Thursday, January 12, 2006

New Virginia Cost-Cutting Blog Goes Over 1000 Hits

Congratulations to Delegate Chris Saxman and his VACostCutting blog, upon which I was the 1001st hit early this morning. It has the potential to be a good read.

One thing that I hope --- but am unsure whether to expect --- to see is a ringing endorsement of school choice (vouchers and/or tax credits) as a cost-cutting measure.

Too frequently, the debate over school choice gets caught up in the social-issues slanders that the far Left uses to disparage the notion of parental choice in education as a double-secret scheme to destroy government schools. And while that might not be a bad idea --- I have come to wonder whether the separation of school and state is not more important to liberty than the separation of church and state --- it's not a necessary result of an active school choice program.

It's a fairly simple proposition, really. Give parents vouchers and tax credits. Perhaps the most frequently-cited number is about $3,500, which was --- a few years back --- about half of the average per-pupil expenditure in Prince William County. 'Course, right now, it's about 90-95% of the cost of tuition at my son's private, Christian school.

OK. Now this isn't too hard to follow, but our "friends" on the far Left (the NEA and its apologists) seem to have a problem with simple math, so read carefully. Maybe they're simply products of government schools. Here goes:

If every parents get a voucher for half the average per-pupil expenditures (let's call that number $7,000), and an uncertain number of parents (let's call that number x) utilize those vouchers to send their children to private schools, it will deny to schools x x $3,500. But it will also free up x x $3,500. Now what to do with that other x x $3,500? Well, if total education spending is not reduced (something even our Republican-controlled legislature seems pathologically incapable of doing) per-pupil expenditures can increase by 50% in the public schools. So school choice isn't necessarily --- or even probably --- an instrument to defund the government schools on a per-pupil expenditures basis. Even if that x x $3,500 is not plowed back into government schools, per-pupil expenditures would remain flat.

Of course, with an unknown number of parents withdrawing their children from government schools and choosing Christian or private non-religious education, the demand for government-school teachers, staff, and bureaucrats will be diminished. That, of course, is the rub for government-employee unions. Lesser need for educrats means fewer members; fewer members mean less dues; less dues to spend on politics means less power.

So the opposition of the chief defenders of big government is not based upon concern for children, or parents, or efficiency, or some belief in the mythical separation of church and state. It's about dues and income for the union-boss political machine. It's about government control.

But one has to wonder why there are some Republicans who virtually reflexively oppose school choice. Is it because it is supported by Christian Conservatives? The evidence would seem compelling. After all, so-called moderates who recoil from "social-agenda" Conservatives frequently tout their "fiscal conservatism." Since there is nothing inherently unconstitutional about a voucher or tax credit program --- so long as parents control the voucher --- even for Christian schools, a well-administered voucher or tax-credit program would serve both the ends of social-agenda Conservatives and fiscal/limited-government Conservatives ... if fiscal Conservatives were actually interested in reducing the size, scope, and power of government. That they fail or refuse to recognize the positive fiscal benefits of a voucher/tax-credit program should cause one to question their commitment to smaller government and, indeed, whether they are any kind of Conservative. Other than the kind of "conservative" that defends reactionary Liberalism.

Don't confuse advocates of government schools with advocates for education. Quality education is far down on their list of priorities, and is only incidental to their agenda. Efficiency isn't even on the radar.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

What if a school fills up and a kid has no choice but to stay in a public school against their wishes?

What do you tell these kids/parents?

James Young said...

Yes, Anon, by all means: come up with every lame excuse that you can think to defend the public school monopoly.

Of course, the great thing about a free market is that the problem you describe is anticipated by the laws of supply and demand. When there are too few private schools for the children who want to escape from government schools, enterprising individuals will start new private schools, and the child will have the option.

Anonymous said...

For the record James, I think school choice is a good idea…….lighten up and don’t be so paranoid! However, a free market already exists in education. You can send your kids to a private school if you want or you can home school your child. Government subsidized education in any form is not “private” – it’s public.

In addition, these “free markets” you speak of vary in size from community to community. The “market” in Richmond is much different from the “market” in Galax.

In many non-metropolitan communities like Galax you have school systems that are composed of a few elementary schools, one or two middle schools and one or two high schools. The markets are small enough in non-metropolitan communities like Galax that it makes more sense to devote most of your resources (tax dollars) to fixing existing schools as opposed to giving up on them and opening up charter schools, giving vouchers, or building magnet schools that are publicly funded.

Charter schools, vouchers, magnet schools, etc., are a good idea under certain circumstances. I just don’t see how they do much good in small, rural communities

criticallythinking said...

Anon (3:00pm):
Isn't the mere suggestion that the alternative schools would fill up, giving a kid "no choice but to stay in a public school against their wishes" a stinging rebuke of the public school system?

Are you suggesting that the public schools are so bad that, given even a partial tuition voucher, flight from public schools would be so great that some would be forced to stay against their will in public schools?

And if you are so concerned about that, aren't you even more concerned that under the existing system, those same kids are forced to stay in the public schools, along with all the others too poor to be able to afford private school tuition?

Denying children a quality education because of fear that not every one will be able to take advantage of it is not a solution, it is an admission of defeat.

criticallythinking said...

James,

20/20 tonight (friday 13th) was an hour-long presentation by John Stossel about how our public schools are failing our students, and how much improvement is gained when vouchers are used, even in the public schools which now have to compete.

They also had a good story about an alternative public school delivering the highest test scores in a district while spending less money, simply by focusing on teaching rather than a bunch of other stuff.

And it mentioned the fiasco in Kansas where the courts-turned-legislature ordered more spending, leading to really great facilities housing students failing even more miserably than before.

But so long as parents have an unfounded love for their kid's teachers, and the teachers have a union to keep the legislature in check, and the liberals have the court system to insist on squashing our religious liberties, vouchers aren't going anywhere.

I almost wish vouchers were a liberal idea -- because every liberal idea, no matter how patently stupid, gets funded.

Chris Saxman said...

James,

School choice is a personal passion of mine and I hope once the membership of the Cost Cutting Caucus is set that they too will agree on the need for reform.

I carried the bill last year that cleared the House for the first time. Of course, the VEA immediately likened it to Massive Resistance.

Question - if the 125,000 students who are currently not enrolled in Va public school suddenly showed up tomorrow, what would the OPERATING only cost be? Capita cost?

Chris Saxman said...

sorry that should have been capital cost. in hurry and was trying to make a meeting.

James Young said...

Good point, Chris, and thanks for reading. I've battled the NEA's forced-unionism tendencies quite a few times over the years (mostly in Alaska), and it's worth noting that, the one time it was put to its proofs in Federal courts as to what portion of its dues was expended for bargaining activities, and what was expended for politics, it could prove that only 10% was spent on collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment.

As to the costs, I have to imagine the per capita costs in Virginia is now up to over $8000 (I'm sure that you have access to more up-to-date figures than I, and I'd guess higher). Even excluding necessary increased capital costs, parents who send their children to private schools are already saving the Commonwealth and its localities not less than a billion dollars per year, with no acknowledgement of that fact in the tax code whatsoever.

Charlie said...

The point that school vouchers would only take money out of public schools in proportion to the number of students they would no longer have to educate is well taken.

Yet isn't there more to the analysis than that? I assume you got that figure by taking the amount of money spent on schools and dividing it by the number of students. Or maybe doing the same calculation for a particular school or district - something like that.

But isn't that analysis leaving something out? What the economists call "economies of scale"? I mean that big investments such as music facilities, sports facilities, computers, etc. might only be financially feasible for schools with a sufficiently large volume of students.

If we do institute a vouchers program, and let's say the number of students attending public schools drops by 1/2, we could wind up with two school systems neither of which is in a position to provide any of the valuable things I mentioned above.

And of course, in the last analysis, the possible costs I've suggested will be compared against the benefits of school choice. But, as a product of both public and private schools myself, I'm extremely skeptical as to the benefits of private education over public and I'm not sure that school choice could survive this analysis.

Isn't this a problem for the school choice movement?

Charlie said...

I assume you got that figure by taking the amount of money spent on schools and dividing it by the number of students.

by "that figure" I mean the 7K. (i should really start reading my comments before i publish them)

SouthoftheJames.com said...

I'm not automatically against vouchers, and I'm a big proponent of charter or other alternatives to the public school model. But, I do have a few concerns. What is to be done in regions where there are virtually no private schools? How would those students be served? This is especially an issue in rural areas of Virginia, such as Southside and Southwest, where aside from a few remnants of the "segregation" academies of the 1960's, there are not many private schools as exist in most of the state's larger metro areas.

Also, given that private schools - according to their statistics - only serve 10% of the student population now and tend to pay less than public schools, how would that delivery mechanism reach a large enough scale to make a dent to break the public school "monopoly."