Point-Counterpoint: Public money for private schools can help public schools

Want to save taxpayer dollars and make public schools more financially secure? There's a simple way. Reduce the variable cost of public schools by allowing parents to use public money to choose a private school.

In 23 states and the District of Columbia, many parents who choose private schools are allowed public funding. None of those jurisdictions had an extra $100 million lying around when those programs started. In fact, taxpayers are saving millions each year in those jurisdictions, with no harmful effects on public schools. How is that possible? It's all about the variable cost of educating a child in public school compared to the cost of the scholarship directed to parents who choose private school.

Let's start by first understanding how expenses for schools work. The total cost of educating a child includes two components-- fixed costs and variable costs:

Fixed costs are costs that don't change with the number of kids in a school. Fixed costs include payments on the bonds used to fund school construction, maintenance, heat, electricity , etc. Fixed costs also include things like the expense of past pension liabilities and other items that don't change with enrollment.

Variable costs are the costs that vary with the number of kids enrolled in school. These are mostly personnel costs associated with student to teacher ratios and student services. Variable costs also include the cost of computers, books, desks and other school supplies.

Many people have trouble visualizing the affect of variable costs in education. They would argue that 200 students leaving a large high school wouldn't reduce the cost of that school at all. If that were true, and all costs were fixed, then adding 200, or even 1,000 new students to that same school wouldn't require any additional funding.

The bulk of school costs are actually variable costs. In a 2012 study conducted by Dr. Ben Scafidi, the average variable cost of educating a child in Alaska public schools was $11,125 and the fixed cost was $6,883 during the 2008-09 school year. If Alaska had offered an average scholarship of $5,000 for parents to switch to private schools back in 2008, the taxpayers would have saved $6,125 in the variable cost of educating every child who made the transition, without affecting the ability of public schools to cover fixed costs.

Indiana is a practical example of how public money to parents who choose private schools has helped public schools. Indiana reduced the variable cost of educating kids in public schools by $41 million by investing $36 million in vouchers for kids to attend private schools. The remaining $5 million windfall savings was reinvested back into public schools to help fund programs that wouldn't be otherwise available. Indiana is currently looking at funding a pre-K program for low-income students; partially because of the saving from their voucher program.

In most states that allow public money to go to parents who choose private schools, publicly funded scholarships are specifically tailored to cater to low-income parents or parents with disabled children. In Alaska, the average variable cost of educating an intensive-needs student with disabilities is well over $60,000/year per student. As it turns out, private schools in other states are very willing to accommodate parents with disabled children, for significantly less than the variable cost of those same kids public schools.

The data gathered from the 23 states who are currently sending public money to parents who choose private school, show that school choice does not harm public schools; it strengthens them. With school choice present, public schools are no longer comfortable in a guaranteed a supply of students assigned by the zip code their parents can afford. School choice spurs public schools to innovate and improve, to ensure public schools are an attractive choice, when parents have other options.

Bottom line: Experience shows us school choice produces a better educated public with lower taxpayer costs.

Bob Griffin is chairman of the Anchorage School District Budget Advisory Commission.