This commentary originally appeared in San Antonio Express-News on February 17, 2016.
We often hear or read concerns that charter schools detract or draw resources from our local school districts. However, is that the question that should be raised? Shouldn’t we be asking how to best meet the needs of every single Texas student? Nothing is more important to the future of our society than the education of our youth.
Politics often causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture and instead focus on them versus us. Those with the greatest political might usually prevail with the larger slice of the pie in hand. Fights over education budgets are often the most difficult of all political battles in Austin. Some $50 billion each year represents a big pie to be divided among a thousand school districts and hundreds of interest groups.
Truth is, money paid by taxpayers is not the property of schools, nor the property of special interests that prefer that it be spent one way or the other; instead it is money held in trust for Texas students.
How do we refocus? How do we best direct $50 billion to maximize societal benefit? How do we determine how much to spend? How do we determine the most effective manner to spend? For more than 30 years, school districts have been using taxpayer dollars to sue taxpayers for more money. Yet no one can tell us exactly how much money is needed. Instead, the answer is always “more.”
Truth is that no one knows what it costs to educate a child because there is no marketplace for educational services. Researchers have struggled with this question for decades, yet all we actually know is what we spend. Invariably, districts do need more money.
Clearly, the playing field is constructed for the benefit of school “districts” as they are granted a virtual monopoly over educational services within a geographic region. They are granted taxing authority and receive, on average, more than $250,000 per classroom of 25 students. The average teacher makes about $50,000 in Texas. The playing field does not favor the classroom effort.
That’s the problem with third-party pay systems and with government price-fixing — there is no marketplace to optimize the allocation of resources, and therefore, resources do not flow where needed most. Competition from charters encourages districts to consider consumer needs, and assign resources to meet those needs. Therefore, instead of pandering to those particular special interests that make the most noise, as usually occurs in politics, districts will have a greater incentive to maximize the efficiency of resource allocations.
Unlike ISDs, no child is ever assigned to a charter school; students only attend by choice. As proven during the school finance trial, charters receive about $1,000 per child less than ISDs after considering facilities funding. Charters serve a disproportionate number of low-income students and on average have a better success rate with those students than do many ISDs.
Texans should not be as concerned with the structure of education as with the quality of education. An educational marketplace would provide different children with different options and allow services to be tailored to his/her individual needs. The addition of charters is a small but good first step in that direction.
Kent Grusendorf is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Education Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.