Funding students, not school systems: a proposal
“Fund the student, not the system.” That slogan looks more and more powerful these days, as:
- … parents teach their children at home, receiving directives—but no help—from the public-school systems;
- …taxpayers confront the ever-higher costs of supporting the public schools (whether or not they are open), and their mediocre educational results; and
- … powerful teachers’ unions, especially in American’s big cities, balk at the suggestion that classrooms should re-open—while of course insisting that teachers must be paid their full-time wages.
Hundreds of thousands of American families have discovered the benefits (as well as the costs) of home-schooling since the start of the Covid lockdown. Parents have learned that they can teach their own children, with some help from their friends, when the schools are closed. So why shouldn’t they continue to teach their own children when—if—the schools reopen?
“Choice” is also an attractive option. Proponents of unrestricted abortion have twisted the term beyond recognition, pushing an agenda that gives no “choice” to the unborn child. But they succeeded not only because they had the unquestioning support of sympathetic mass-media organizations, but also because under any ordinary circumstances we all do prefer to have choices: choices between consumer products, choices on restaurant menus, choices among political candidates and platforms.
But somehow support for choice in education has never reached the same level—yet. The public-school system, which still trains the vast majority of young Americans, remains the default option. So young couples, looking for homes, carefully investigate the reputations of the local school systems. And taxpayers in every town, conscious of how a good or bad school system can influence the market value of their homes, lean toward continued support of those public schools, even if they have doubts about what they teach or how well they teach it.
To break the deadlock—since the word “choice” apparently will not work its magic in this case—I propose a simple policy option, which might be implemented by local communities, to “fund the student(s), not the system.”
For every school-age student, the community would offer qualified local parents a certain sum—say, $1,000—which could be spent at any accredited school of their choice. (The community would define the standards for qualification; wealthier families might receive smaller sums, or none at all.) If they chose the public schools, the $1,000 would go into that system; if they opted for private or religious or home schools, the $1,000 would go toward tuition or home-school expenses. Parents would be required to demonstrate that the funds were used for educational purposes.
If those $1,000 payments seem to loom as a burden for local taxpayers, consider that the public-school system probably requires about $15,000 per student each year. So for every student who opted to leave the public schools and take the voucher payment, the community would save $14,000. As things stand, small towns live in fear that new homes will be built, and new families move into the community, bringing students whose education the taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize.
But wait. A $1,000 voucher does not nearly cover the cost of tuition at private or parochial schools. True. But it helps—perhaps more than appears at first glance.
Consider a family with four school-age children. For them the vouchers amount to $4,000 a year. That’s still is not enough to pay for most private schools, but it is an attractive sum—especially for families that are already sending their children to private schools or schooling the children at home. And bear in mind that the $4,000 payment is not a one-year award; it keeps recurring for every year the children are in school.
Now imagine that a family with four children is planning to buy a new home. Two homes appeal to them: one in Town A, the other in Town B. Town A has a conventional system of funding the public schools. Town B offers vouchers. For that family, all other things being equal, the home in Town B is measurably more attractive—by a factor of $4,000 times the number of years the children will be in school.
So that family is more likely to move into Town B. And since it is a fairly large family, it will probably buy a fairly large house, and pay substantial real-estate taxes. This is exactly the reverse of the nightmare scenario that makes small-town planners worry about new developments; instead of bringing in new students to break the local budget, the families supply new revenue to balance that budget.
And that’s not all. As many such families look to move into Town B, the local real-estate market will heat up, enhancing the property values of the town’s current residents. Thus even those who do not have children in the schools should welcome the change.
The obvious objection to this scheme, which teachers’ unions would raise immediately, is the possibility that the loss of students would weaken the public-school system. Perhaps so—but only if those public schools are serving their students so poorly that a family of moderate means would opt out for a voucher that would pay only a small fraction of the costs of other schools. And in any case, what is the real goal of public support for education? Surely we want to fund the students, not the system.
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