The Opportunity Agenda: K-12 Vouchers

by James A. Bacon

The fastest, quickest, most sure-fire way to eliminate “structural racism” in Virginia’s public education system is to empower parents financially to find alternatives to failing public schools.

Let’s crunch a few numbers. This fiscal year, 2021, the General Assembly has allocated a bit more than $7 billion in direct aid to education. This sum supplements funds that local governments raise from local taxes for their school systems. In 2018, there were roughly 1.6 million school-age children in Virginia (a number that includes children who are home schooled or who attend private school). That averages out to roughly $4,500 in state aid per child.

The Commonwealth should convert that $4,500 aid into a voucher for any family seeking an alternative education, be it home schooling or a private school. That sum is not enough, by itself, to cover the cost of a private-school education. But it could well make the difference on the margin to thousands of families considering keeping a parent at home to teach their child or need help paying a private-school tuition.

Moreover, for poor households unable to pay a dime toward their children’s educations, the voucher could supplement scholarship funds made available through the state’s education tax credit. In Fiscal Year 2019, that tax credit funded $10.8 million in scholarship funds benefiting 4,710 students. Those figures don’t include thousands of scholarships provided by private schools without benefit of the tax credit.

State vouchers would not hurt public school systems. For every $4,500 a school district loses in state aid, it is relieved of the fiscal burden of educating one less student. Yet districts still retains their local tax revenue. More local tax revenue for fewer students = more revenue per student. (Not that there is much of a correlation between spending per student and academic achievement, but the loss of funds is not a serious objection to vouchers.)

If local school districts could embrace the idea that their job is to ensure that every Virginia child receives an education, not necessarily a “public” school education, some school boards might even consider converting a portion of their local tax revenues into vouchers. Imagine what that would do to unleash the creativity and innovation of the private sector!

Consider the City of Richmond. The school system spends $13,667 per year, according to BestPlaces.net. Let’s say the school system retains $6,000 or so to cover the cost of maintaining its physical plant and boated bureaucratic overhead, and distributed as vouchers only the $7,389 it spends on instruction per student. That would bump up vouchers by a couple thousand dollars more. There is no reason the vouchers cannot be structured as a win-win for everyone.

If Virginia shifted decisively to a voucher-driven educational system, I do see one possible concern. A lot of flaky shaky “educators” could crawl out of the woodwork, making a play for the “free” tuition dollars. We have certainly seen the phenomenon of fly-by-night for-profit “schools” in the higher-education realm. I would be OK with a requirement that says any school (or home-school family) accepting public education dollars would have to meet the same Standards of Learning criteria as public schools.

Many details would need to be worked out. But a funding formula that empowers parents — especially the parents of poor children lacking the means to move to better school districts — would create an educational system that is far more accountable than the multilayered, bureaucratically encumbered playpen for radical ideologies that we have now. Vouchers are what an Opportunity Agenda looks like.

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