Separating fact from fiction: Analyzing the real cost of education choice, Part 1

Editor’s note: This analysis from Patrick Gibbons, manager for Policy and Public Affairs at Step Up For Students, is the first in a two-part series.

Education choice opponents have made big headlines across the nation by claiming choice programs will cost billions of dollars and strip public schools of the necessary funding to survive. A skeptical brain and a critical eye reveal a series of compounding errors in these critics’ calculations.

In February, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy claimed vouchers in the state would cost $359 million based on analysis of scholarship usage in Arizona and Florida. The result was significantly higher than the official estimates and likely helped contribute to the defeat of vouchers in the state Senate.

For Arizona, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy cited a Grand Canyon Institute analysis that claimed 75% of private school students were applying for the new scholarship program. The analysis overestimated the financial impact because it failed to take into account two important facts in Arizona:

  • The application season opened Aug. 16. The late start meant that most applicants were already attending private schools while eligible public school students, who might have wanted a scholarship, chose to remain in public schools.
  • Many applicants were already on a tax credit scholarship and simply desired to switch to the new education savings account program.

For Florida, the Idaho Center cited the Florida Policy Institute, which also overestimated the financial impact. Last week, FPI, under questioning from Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay), admitted that the $4 billion cost estimate for a scholarship expansion bill included hundreds of thousands of students already using the scholarship.

Unfortunately, this misinformation spreads unchecked like a viral infection.

The Education Law Center compounded the errors cited above by making faulty assumptions on how much Florida school district funding would decrease.

For example, the center claims that an expanded voucher would cost Pinellas County Public Schools $161 million, forcing a reduction of state aid by $1,233 per pupil.

This is incorrect:

  • A reduction of $1,233 per pupil to Pinellas County public school students would lead to about a $1,233 reduction in the voucher amount.
  • A $1,233 reduction in the voucher amount will reduce the “impact” of the voucher to Pinellas County.

… and so on, infinitely.

The Education Law Center simply does not understand how the FEFP works. (To be fair, few do.)

Scholarship values are calculated based on the state and local per-pupil support for K-12 public schools. A decline in per pupil funding leads to a decline in scholarship amounts. A rise in per-pupil funding increases scholarship amounts.

It is also worth repeating that the funds going to scholarships are never taken out of public school coffers. In fact, local school districts get to keep 100% of the local support to spread among the students who remain behind.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at [email protected]. Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.