How to Give Virginians Real School Choice

Vouchers could make school choice a reality for thousands of Virginians.

Students at Immanuel Christian School in Northern Virginia. Tuition ranges from $7,500 to $10,000 a year. Four thousand-dollar vouchers would make school choice a reality for hundreds of thousands more Virginians.

Virginians enjoy a wide range of school choice… providing that they are affluent enough. If they can’t afford to pay private school tuition or buy a house in neighborhoods served by the best public schools, however, their options are limited.

The Old Dominion has among the smallest number of charter schools in the country — nine. The state does provide a tax credit to encourage donations to approved educational foundations, of which there are 34. But in fiscal 2016 those foundations provided only 2,882 scholarships — no more than a rounding error in the Commonwealth’s nearly 1.3 million school-age population. Virginia does allow parents to home-school their children, but the number of families in a position to pursue that option also is modest — the Virginia Department of Education counted only 33,400 home-schooled students in fiscal 2016.

In sum, Virginia’s educational system does a fine job of serving the state’s more affluent citizens but restricts opportunities for those who are less better-off. The poorest households are stuck in failing inner-city and rural school districts with no way of getting out. And the quality of education in Virginia’s worst schools is abysmal. Of the state’s 1,825 public schools, 22% were either denied accreditation or received only partial accreditation under the state’s minimalist standards.

The traditional solution espoused by the teacher’s lobby is mo’ money. There is nothing about Virginia’s educational system that can’t be improved by dumping extra dollars into it! But let’s face it: Given impending budget shortfalls, the big question facing the General Assembly in January is which programs get cut and by how much. Virginia’s K-12 school system won’t be getting any more state funding next year, and chronic budget pressures over the next decade suggest that there won’t be much more forthcoming in the decade ahead.

Tinkering with the system won’t accomplish anything meaningful. The inability of the political establishment to alter the educational status quo creates a tremendous opportunity for an insurgent movement such as the Libertarian Party to advance a bold proposal.

It’s time to think big.

Broadly speaking, there are three main sources of revenue for K-12 education in Virginia: local revenue, state revenue and federal revenue. The state component, referred to in the General Fund budget as “Direct Aid to Public Education,” is budgeted to receive $5.8 billion this fiscal year, although that sum might be trimmed during the upcoming General Assembly session in anticipation of a revenue shortfall.

That $5.8 billion is distributed to local governments according to a complicated formula, but it averages about $4,500 per student.

I propose transforming K-12 education by using the state aid to empower parents and promote school choice. Parents could continue sending their children to public school if they desired, and the school district would continue receiving state aid as it always had. But anyone choosing to send a child to a private school (or home school) would receive a $4,000 voucher reflecting the state’s cost in providing that education.

Admittedly, $4,000 is not enough by itself to cover a private school tuition. But it’s enough to cover a significant portion of the tuition, making private school more affordable for middle-class families than it is today. Families that couldn’t afford to pay, say, $8,000 a year in tuition perhaps could afford to pay $4,000. For poor families, the $4,000 would supplement scholarship dollars, enabling scholarship foundations to stretch their resources over more students. For home schoolers, the sum would be a boon to distance learning, teaching collaboratives and free-lance teachers, spurring innovation in how education is organized and delivered.

The beauty of the arrangement is that it benefits public schools, too. While public districts would lose some state money, they would have fewer students to educate. Fewer students would translate into more local dollars per student. Everybody wins — everybody, that is, but the ideologues who oppose private education.

This idea is a broad framework only, and there could be many wrinkles to iron out. The most obvious is the need to hold private schools accountable. Perhaps any school accepting voucher funds would be required to meet the same Standards of Learning criteria as public schools do. Not all private schools are created equal. There needs to be a mechanism for weeding out the bad schools, and the SOLs might do the trick.

Another problem is that state aid is not distributed to school districts equally. Wealthier school districts get fewer state dollars; poorer school districts get more. Handing out vouchers would create winners and losers, and losers would oppose any change to the status quo. But that’s a small price to pay to give financially strapped families genuine school choice and to foster innovation by entrepreneurs and educators.

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9 responses to “How to Give Virginians Real School Choice

  1. I bet you would need less money if you fixed the problems named here:
    http://www.publicagenda.org/press-releases/discipline-problems-unruly-behavior-seriously-threatening-student-achievement

    Basically that disruptive students, doesn’t matter anything about demographics, are booted out. Put them to hard labor if they are over 13, from 7-12 they can through a boot camp school. If they don’t want to learn, they can be of service like other kids have done for their families. Do they have this problem in 3rd world countries? Nope. Get rid of some safety nets and you’ll see quickly who wants to eat and have a roof over their head.

  2. re:

    ” In sum, Virginia’s educational system does a fine job of serving the state’s more affluent citizens but restricts opportunities for those who are less better-off. The poorest households are stuck in failing inner-city and rural school districts with no way of getting out. ”

    okay – so it’s the poor that are getting screwed – right?

    then we hear this:

    ” Admittedly, $4,000 is not enough by itself to cover a private school tuition. But it’s enough to cover a significant portion of the tuition, making private school more affordable for middle-class families than it is today. Families that couldn’t afford to pay, say, $8,000 a year in tuition perhaps could afford to pay $4,000. For poor families, the $4,000 would supplement scholarship dollars, enabling scholarship foundations to stretch their resources over more students. ”

    everytime I hear the pro-voucher folks – it sounds like this.

    “oh those poor kids… but if we give vouchers then the middle class will surely be better off .. and someone will “help” the poor….or at least some of them… and the rest? well they deserve their plight because there’s bad parents and disruptive peers to blame…

    the original promise of America was equal opportunity – for each kid – in theory.

    today -we just dispense with that whole concept. It’s too bad some kids are screwed… but they sure make good excuses for giving vouchers to the middle class…

    • Larry, combine vouchers with tax-credit scholarships and you provide an educational pathway for the poor.

      • Jim – it’s a concept at best… and it’s delivered by the advocates as an “oh maybe we can do this for the poor” afterthought.

        when I hear you guys PRIORITIZE a real solution to the very people you’re using as a handy excuse to give vouchers to the well off.. I’ll give more credit.

        I totally agree the public school system has failed them but the voucher idea has no scruples.. it’s blatantly NOT for the poor – even though it uses them as justification.

        How many of the poor are NOT disruptive and the parents do the best they can with the only education they have – when they have time if they work low income jobs to start with?

        when do you guys come up with a real plan – a real solution – something that actually sounds like you’re serious about doing something practical?

      • Let me point out, LG, that around Washington neighborhoods there’s a lot of support for vouchers particularly from the “poor.” There is no question in my mind that a great deal of teachers’ union opposition to vouchers is motivated by the fear that given the option, those parents will vote with their feet against the public model. Why? We can all cite stories and statistics to back our predisposed preferences in this well-developed debate, but to me, as the parent of four children who paid for them to attend both public (Fairfax) and private secondary schools ” full freight,” the most persuasive arguments for public education reform came in PTA meetings etc. from those who could not afford to leave that system — and said so, loudly.

        To me, this debate concerns two things: parents’ desire for an education for their kids in smaller class sizes and amongst other kids who want to be there — i.e., without the discipline problems in the classroom BR has so often highlighted — and parents’ desire for some objective means of evaluating teacher quality and performance — i.e., finding criteria other than the verdict (after graduation) of the employers and admissions officers who find their kids unprepared and undisciplined. Sure, letting those motivated kids of motivated parents escape from the public school classroom exposes the latter to a downward spiral of problems — but at what cost do we allow only the parents who can afford school choice without vouchers to have the only children who get a decent education? Talk about inequitable!

        During those expensive years of secondary and especially college tuitions, a voucher from the State sure would have helped me. But it’s ultimately that, as you put it, “the original promise of America was equal opportunity – for each kid.” And I totally disagree with you that “today we just dispense with that whole concept.” No, what JB is talking about is how to preserve “that whole concept” — with less emphasis on the parents’ means.

  3. Fairfax County has adopted a policy that money for low-income, non-English-speaking students follows the children. As I understand the policy, this additional money does not stay at a school when a qualified student changes schools, but goes to the new school. So if 10% of the low-income students at School A transfer to Schools B & C, School A’s money is cut and B & C get more. I see some logic to this approach and suggest it’s not out of line with the concept of school vouchers.

    I see a strong argument for changing today’s funding for public schools from money going to schools and certain special programs to converting the money to a fixed sum per student (adjusted for individual special needs) and allowing that student to go to the school of choice. Of course, there would need to be certain regulations and oversight to make sure that schools were and remained qualified and followed all applicable regulations.

    Thus, assuming general education students, the family that makes $1 M per year gets the same amount per student as the family who makes $30 K per year. If the first family has a child with a hearing disability, it gets more money. Similarly, if the second family’s income qualifies for Title 1, etc., it gets additional money.

    This approach would open many more options for lower income students and force changes on public schools in order to retain the bulk of the students.

  4. I’d be totally in favor of vouchers for low income kids in failing schools if:

    1. – the voucher school was located near where these populations of kids actually are .

    2. – the vouchers were only good for actual low-income “at risk kids” that are actually in failing schools.

    3. the voucher schools were held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools are.

    4. that voucher schools also have to take low-performing kids – who have no record of being disruptive and must improve their scores since that is the entire premise of voucher schools to start with.

    when I hear the proponents of vouchers actually proffer these idea then I’ll believe it’s something other than a cynical attempt to use taxpayer money to fund private schools for kids who are not even in failing schools and whose parents are not low-income.

    and I DO LIKE TMT’s ideas and if the proposals are actually serious , I’d support Federal Head Start and Title money going, as TMT suggests, “with the kid”.

    I’d further support online curricula at the schools – so that kids can go faster than the class pace if they are able – but still classroom. And I’d support money for internet for the kids at home with controls on access so it would not be abused – much like internet for the kids in public schools is already controlled.

    We need serious proposals from people who are honestly interested in addressing the issues – and less blather from the ideologues.

    • I agree with your 3 and 4. Why, however, does 1, proximity, matter? And why 2, that is, why should education be made into yet another income redistribution tool when the very premise of the public education movement of the 19th century was that a democracy owes itself an educated electorate without ANY barriers of private cost?

  5. proximity ? well if the idea is to have a school mostly full of at risk kids – why would you NOT locate it where they can get to it easily?

    why? because you’re supposedly using existing tax dollars – and your goal is to produce MORE employable people who grow up to take care of themselves and not need entitlements. Would you rather pay a few thousand extra for K-5 or 30K a year for incarceration an entitlements?

    the theory here is that we already spend a crap-load of money on education but it’s getting wasted by the public school system and so we should take it away from them and do something better.

    I’m all in favor of that – as long as we actually seek to do what we say we want to do – with vouchers.

    but when we say it’s for the poor kids who get screwed by our current system then turn around like Bacon is saying and give that money to middle income folks to subsidize private school – isn’t that an even worse “re-distribution” if the supposed original focus was those poor kids with “needs”?

    this seems to be a recurring theme here and with Conservatives these days. They want the subsidies and goodies – but not for the poor but instead themselves!

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