Commentary: School Choice – and Lower Property Taxes (February, 2015)

by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

Finally alarmed by voter resentment at high school property taxes, the Vermont legislature is hot on the trail of some kind of “solution”.  It’s not likely to be productive unless legislators crawl out of the box that confines their thinking.

One obvious (non)”solution” is to ship more money from the General Fund to the Education Fund.  The GF already sends $300 million a year to the EF. Increasing that transfer would reduce the homestead school property tax. Great!

But not so fast. The General Fund is $100 million in deficit, largely because of Medicaid expansions. This “solution” can’t happen.

Another obvious (non) “solution”: Raise new taxes for education. Gov. Shumlin’s  proposed new payroll tax will if enacted go toward financing  government health care, not education. An increased income tax?  Sales tax?  The VPIRG carbon tax? The sugary beverage tax?  Not a prayer.

A more likely “solution” is “enforced frugality”. The state Agency of Education would command the school districts to increase pupil/staff ratios, shut down small schools, cap salaries, and implement whatever other cost-cutting steps Montpelier might mandate. This could bend education spending downward, but only by creating “One Big School System”. Vermonters will not like this.

Then there’s the “governance reform” solution. This requires consolidation of school districts into Regional Education Districts, similar to multi-town waste management districts. The REDs would then have to do the dirty work of enforcing frugality to the State’s satisfaction. This model may achieve some cost savings, but they are likely to eaten up by adding deputy and assistant superintendents and incurring higher transportation costs. Even the backers of “governance reform” are very careful about claiming any significant spending savings.

All of these solutions and non-solutions are founded on the idea of maintaining our very costly near-monopoly public school system, in which school districts send their budgets to the Education Fund for payment. Is there an alternative?

The problems with our traditional form of public education have been getting more obvious over the past half century – let’s say from 1971, when the Vermont Education Association converted itself from a professional association of educators into the Vermont-NEA labor union.

Now many Vermont parents have become disenchanted with having the government assign their children to the centrally-controlled, union-dominated state-financed educational system. They view it as having an intellectually fatuous and/or morally deficient culture and curriculum. They see public schools as all too often catering more to the desires of those employed in the system, instead of the consumers.

Understandably, the parents want to send their children to their choice of public or independent schools whose culture, values and curricula are more responsive to the parents’ aspirations for their children.

Vermont pioneered parental choice as far back as 1869 by allowing towns without their own high schools to tuition students to public and independent schools chosen by parents. Now in the 21st century the time seems to be ripe for expanding that choice program to more towns, more schools, more children and more diverse opportunities. Choice makes the consumer king, not the provider, and the competition will invigorate, not destroy, public schools.

But will giving all parents choice for their kids drive down K-12 spending? Quite possibly, yes. With empowered choice, many parents – probably thousands of them – will opt for independent schools and programs that cost much less than the public schools. This will clearly reduce education costs while increasing parental satisfaction.

How to do that without giving independent schools an incentive to increase their tuitions to claim the voucher payments is an important issue. Another is preserving opportunities and parental choices for special education students, for which Florida’s MacKay scholarships have been a highly successful model. Yet another is relaxing state mandates to encourage public schools to compete effectively for tuition dollars.

Reps. Vickie Strong (R-Albany) and Mike Hebert (R-Vernon) are about to introduce a bill to expand parental choice in a way designed to hold down education costs and thus school property taxes, better serve the needs of students, and put parents in the driver’s seat.

Their bill will attract lots of attention – especially from the Vermont-NEA and other invested “stakeholders” of the state’s Education Establishment. They view competition for student vouchers as a threat to their security and tranquility.

Now is the time for parents and taxpayers to have their say. They are the true “stakeholders”.

-  John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).

 

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Weiland Ross February 2, 2015 at 2:48 pm

School choice as a solution to high education taxes is probably not going to work.
The matter of choice to allow parents more control, or the opportunity to choose a
school they feel is better for their child, is a separate matter from cost savings.
Smaller schools, many of which are hopelessly inefficient in terms of costs per pupil, will become more inefficient, because their local school boards are not likely to cut expenses, and voters pass school budgets mindlessly ‘for the good of the kids’. If more than a few parents choose an option, planning for staffing and other budget items will be almost impossible in time for the March elections. If the choice is to include public to public schools as well as public to private, one problem that will likely arise is what if the grass isn’t greener and they want to return. This could become an ‘in and out and in’ situation that causes higher budgets ‘just in case’.

School choice may be desirable on educational grounds, but selling it as a cost
saver has too many logistic problems that have to be worked out.

As for the power of the teacher’s union, to some degree it is a paper tiger. If enough legislators will get the back bone of the Gov.. of Wisconsin , and “just say no”
much of the featherbedding and excess staffing will go away. It is too bad that the
VT NEA has chosen to go with the New York City model of union instead of ones, such as New Jersey’s union, that have managed to remain true professional organizations and avoid becoming agents for sloth and inefficiency. (I am a retired
“master teacher” who was head of my local union for most of my career, so I am not
coming at this “cold”.)

Reply

Rob February 2, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Good points, Weiland. The bill some legislators are working on would have several cost saving measures built in. First, the sate would determine the amount of the tuition that would follow each child. Individual school budgets would be determined by the number of students a school attracts. It would also empower the principals of schools to make many more decisions than they currently are allowed to make, allowing for a serious reduction in the size, scope and cost of the current supervisory union bureaucracy. In addition, parents would be incentivized to send their children to less costly schools by allowing them to keep a percentage of the difference between the state tuition and the tuition charged by the school. The rest of the savings would go to reduce property taxes statewide.

Reply

Weiland Ross February 2, 2015 at 3:14 pm

Hi, one problem to be resolved is that even if a parent chooses a less costly school,
they will still be paying taxes as well as some of the tuition if the state tuition doesn’t cover it. Am glad the ‘ball is in the air’ and some serious thought is going on!
Weiland

Reply

bruce buxton February 2, 2015 at 3:08 pm

An excellent framing of the issues. And contrast the bureaucratic models of accountability with the direct accountability offered by school choice models: in a direct model tuition follows the student and schools are accountable directly to parents for the real delivery of effective instruction…not to bureaucrats self-protected by the pseudo-objectivity of data generated by unproven and abstract models: standards and standardized tests. Bureaucratic accountability aims for two results: the protection of bureaucrat’s pensions and the perfection of mediocrity. And where in history and real life has direct accountability produced a result? Look to any famous school of any kind, anywhere.

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Ralph Colin February 2, 2015 at 6:38 pm

A question raised here that has absolutely nothing to do with the substance or the content of this excellent and most interesting and worthwhile discussion.
I live in Dorset where the current time is 1:33PM on Tuesday. 2 February. Am I living in a time warp?

All or Ross’s, Rob’s and Bruce’s postings indicate that they were added to this conversation roughly an hour to an hour and a half from now. Am I still alive and kicking? Do I still live near the East coast of the good ol’ US of A?

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