A friend of mine, Baker Maultsby, recently wrote an article that is very much pro public education. I asked Baker for permission to reprint it in my blog and he graciously agreed. Here it is, and it is written much more eloquently than I ever could:
In a recent column on the website of Investor’s Business Daily, Matt Kibbe, director of FreedomWorks, boasted that his organization has teamed up with Tea Party activists to advance private school legislation in South Carolina. (I came upon Kibbe’s column, by the way, at the excellent Educating South Carolina blog.) Noting that private school choice was thwarted in the South Carollina legislature last year, he writes, “This time around, FreedomWorks joined local activists and Tea Party leaders in their efforts, providing the grass-roots campaign with extra air and ground support needed to pass the bill. After six months, the bill passed by 15 votes — a landslide turnaround — and is now headed for the South Carolina Senate.”
Kibbe’s column was interesting to me on a couple levels. For one thing, I think he overplays the claims of success that the FreedomWorks/Tea Party coalition has enjoyed. More on that in a minute.
But what if we take Kibbe’s boast seriously and agree that, yes, Tea Party organizations have been instrumental in getting school choice through the SC House? I’d say, then, that if the FreedomWorks/Tea Party coalition is a success, it’s pretty scary stuff. Here’s why: Regardless of what you think of their ideology – and I certainly disagree with the idea diverting public money to private education – the Tea Party crowd tends to be badly misinformed on the issues. False propaganda and misinformation do not promote a healthy democracy.
Recently, the Spartanburg Tea Party recently posted on its website the conclusions of a “report” by South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG), an organization that has been on the leading edge the since early in former gov. Mark Sanford’s tenure.
SCRG, which has never let facts stand in the way of its agenda, has claimed that schools save money whenever students transfer out – thus, private school choice should leave public schools with more money. I’ve been over this ground a number of times, and it’s maddening that groups like SCRG and the Tea Party make claims that are so clearly untrue.
I think they feel that they can get away with it because K-12 education finance is, indeed, a complicated topic. Perhaps SCRG and others believe it’s easy enough to confuse the issues and offer up simplistic conclusions that voters and lawmakers will buy. Unfortunately, they might be right.
But please stick with me here a minute — I want to go over some of the simple math:
SCRG reports that the average amount of money spent on public school students in South Carolina is about $11,000. Private school choice proposals have pushed for tax credits or deductions (mostly for affluent families) to help pay for private school tuition. Previous legislative efforts would have given tax breaks of up to $2,500 for affluent families, while poor families could apply for tuition support through “scholarship-granting organizations” funded through individual and business tax credits.
The current “compromise” legislation would provide tax deductions rather than tax credits for well-to-do families – so their take would only amount to a few hundred dollars. Scholarships for poor students, meanwhile, could provide as much as $5,000 for selected families.
SCRG and other proponents of private school choice legislation want to you to believe in a nice, tidy equation: It costs $11,000 to educate a public school student, so anytime a child transfers out to a private school – whether that student’s family gets a $400 tax break or a $5,000 scholarship – the public school has saved a good deal of money, they say.
Sounds straightforward enough. And apparently a lot of Tea Party types have accepted this math as realistic.
But it’s not realistic.
**First of all, $11,000 is an AVERAGE per-student expenditure. This, of course, means that schools spend more than $11,000 on some kids and less on others.
A school might spend $20,000-a-year on each student in a small, self-contained special education class. Students who are in Advanced Placement courses with small class sizes using specialized science equipment might cost more than the average. Students in technology-heavy career-oriented courses such as metalworking, auto mechanics, or computer-aided drafting might represent a larger investment that their general education peers.
To put it succinctly, schools do not simply spend $11,000 on each individual student.
**Second, and more importantly, a school cannot cut costs every time a student leaves.
Let’s say there is an elementary school with 500 students. If 250 students transfer out to a private school, then sure – significant cost-cutting could occur. But even the most vocal private school choice proponents aren’t predicting such an outcome. Limits to capacity in existing private schools and to the number of proposed scholarships made available make it unlikely that a high percentage of public school students will transfer.
So, how about a more realistic number? Maybe 30-40 students (which I suspect is still a fairly high estimate)…
If 40 kids leave a school it might seem at first glance that a couple teaching positions could be cut and money saved. But that’s only if the students are concentrated in one or two grade levels. If the 40 students are spread across six different grades, then it’s not at all likely that a teaching position can be cut without significantly increasing class sizes. It’s also not enough transfers to lay off a cafeteria worker or cancel a bus route or close the school library.
Naturally, because this undercuts the idea that private school choice saves taxpayer money, SCRG and other propagandists seek out alternative explanations.
SCRG touts a study by Ben Scafidi, an economist from Georgia, where there’s also a siginificant pro-school choice push going on. In a report sponsored by the Friedman Foundation – an organization that advocates for private school choice – he looked at several school districts in Georgia that have lost small percentages of their students in recent years.
Budget numbers reveal that as those districts have lost students, they have also cut costs. Scafidi’s conclusion? Losing a relatively small number of students — the sort of out-migration that might occur in SC if school choice passes — saves money. That would be an obvious benefit to both taxpayers and public schools.
It’s this report that is the basis of the recent Spartanburg Tea Party website post.
But Scafidi’s research is highly suspect – and that’s putting it generously.
I spoke with officials in two of the districts Scafidi’s report cites. These leaders told me that, first of all, they’d never heard of the study and were not interviewed or asked for their perspective.
Scafidi just went with the raw numbers. And what those numbers do not explain – as these school district leaders made clear to me – is that the state of Georgia has been cutting education spending.
In other words, the districts aren’t spending less because they have saved money. They’re spending less because lawmakers have cut their budgets. As a consequence, they have had to raise class sizes, furlough teachers, cut out educational field trips, and scale back after-school programs.
So, when this kind of faulty research gets praised by the likes of SCRG and then forwarded to Tea Party groups – and, certainly, if it makes its way to lawmakers – then we have misinformed voters and poorly reasoned legislation.
I’ve asked Spartanburg Tea Party leader Karen Martin for her thoughts on all this. I like Ms. Martin. She seems fair-minded and willing to engage in honest debate. In an e-mail to me, she said, “I find plenty of studies and real case situations where parental/school choice does all that I believe it does, which is introduce free market competition and give parents the decision-making to improve student graduation rates and raising the quality of education overall without hurting public schools. I’m sure you are finding studies that support your views. That’s the way it is — you can find what you look for.”
Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes in politics. People want to have their own facts. But I’m very confident that the analysis I’ve presented in this post is correct. I invite those with more knowledge of education funding than I have to comment on or add to the discussion.
I will say this: Admittedly, I have heard public education supporters make questionable claims about funding or other hot-button issues. But in this debate over school choice, proponents of the plan have, time and time again, rolled out misleading “reports,” false information, and over-the-line accusations.
Martin and many others involved in the Tea Party scene seem like nice folks who really believe they’re serving a good and patriotic cause. I just happen to think they’ve bought into some really bad ideas – and that those bad ideas have been backed up by erroneous information.
But I suppose Kibbe and the folks at FreedomWorks think there’s nothing wrong with this scenario at all, so long as it supports their agenda.
As for the success Kibbe believes FreedomWorks has had in advancing its agenda, I’m not sure. Getting private school choice through the South Carolina House is a big deal, by all means. But it hasn’t become law yet, and lots of folks think the Senate will reject the plan. Moreover, the bill is a much-scaled proposal that at least one prominent private school choice advocate hasn’t sounded too thrilled about. Had the choice crowd come back with a plan as ambitious (and irresponsible) as those in past years, my guess is that it would have failed in the House again.
And while the Tea Party has made some inroads, Reps. Jenny Horne and Doug Brannon, Republicans who have gained attention for opposing the most recent choice plan, are running unopposed in the GOP primary.
But whatever the case, if the FreedomWorks–SCRG–Howard Rich–Tea Party nexus gets its way, it will be a shame that they’ve had to rely on a campaign of misinformation and lousy math.