No, School Choice Does Not Defund Public Schools
A version of this commentary appeared in the Kansas City Star.
School choice legislation is under consideration in the Missouri legislature, which means it is time for the same misleading argument against the effort to be trotted out—school choice programs “defund” public education. If the voices of the educational establishment are to be believed, allowing even a small number of students to find an educational option other than the traditional public school that they are residentially assigned to will lead to larger class sizes, decreased offerings for students, and lower teacher pay.
None of that is true. In fact, it is a veritable pinata of falsehood and unclear thinking that can be whacked from many different angles. Here are four ways in which this argument is wrongheaded.
First, it is important to think about how schools are funded. A large portion of funding comes via local property taxes. This funding stream flows into schools regardless of the number of students that attend them. A levy is instituted against the value of homes and property in an area and sent to local school districts. If 10 or 100 or 1,000 students leave, local funding is untouched. Don’t believe us? Check your property tax bill.
Schools also receive funding from the state on a weighted, per-student basis. This is where the second bit of slippery thinking comes in. Rather than being punished for students leaving, there are multiple provisions in both the current formula and in several of the proposed pieces of school choice legislation that hold districts harmless. This means school districts may continue receiving funding for students they are no longer educating. For instance, if 100 students decided to move from the Rockwood School District to the Wentzville School District, the state would still send funding to Rockwood for those students for two years while also sending money to Wentzville. That’s under normal circumstances in the current state law. The school choice bill that passed through the Missouri House of Representatives goes even further, allowing school districts to receive funding for five years after a student leaves one of its schools.
But beyond that, the third bit of slippery thinking is based on the premise that students leaving schools is akin to “defunding” them. This way of looking at the issue ignores several key facts. When students leave, yes, some portion of the money allocated for them leaves as well (after a period of time), but the district no longer has the obligation to educate them. Both the revenue and the expense leaves. Critics are only looking at one side of the ledger. By this logic, parents choosing to homeschool their own children “defunds” education; so does the student who moves. Do we think that a student “defunds” the Blue Springs school district when they move to Lee’s Summit? Should we bar families from moving? Taking that logic to its conclusion leads to absurdity.
Some people will acknowledge all that we have pointed out and yet still claim tax credit scholarships “defund” public education by reducing the amount of general revenue. This brings us to our fourth point. And we have to be clear here: the state does not spend any state tax money on a tax credit scholarship program. These programs are funded by charitable donations which receive tax credits. Tax credits, whether for development or for charitable endeavors, can lead to a reduction in general revenue for the state. That part is true, but when is the last time you’ve heard the complaints that low-income housing tax credits “defund” public education? This argument suggests that any program which could potentially impact education funding is actually “defunding” education. Money that goes to roads could instead be going to schools. Was the expansion of Medicaid a massive $9 billion effort to defund public education? Again, this is absurd.
Particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there are important debates to be had about the shape and nature of our public school system in Missouri. These debates will benefit from clear thinking and facts, not misleading and tired rhetoric.