Written By: Anton Sawyer
This article is part of an ongoing series. In an attempt to be thorough, each video and/or course I research will be readily available to all (the free stuff). If you're feeling generous, please show your support by “buying me a coffee”.
I have to admit that the PragerU course I'm debunking today was a bit of a doozy. To be honest, the first time I watched it, I was completely confused as to what the goal was to allow parents to have this choice of schooling. Was it legislation? If it were legislation, what would it even look like? To prevent you from having to suffer this same fate, allow me to give you a baseline as to what is even being discussed: school choice via legal codification. Some of you may already have heard about this when it was being termed the “school voucher program.”
At its core, school choice is an umbrella term used to describe policies that allow parents options other than the school that their home address is zoned to – and that includes everything from public charter schools to programs like education savings accounts, education tax credits, and school vouchers that provide private school tuition assistance for low-income students, students with disabilities or those zoned to low-performing schools.
In theory, funds would be taken away from public education and then funneled into these various credits and the like, thereby allowing the parent to have the money to send their child to a better educational institution.
In this Prager video, they give you nothing but surface-level information that doesn’t allow for the answers to the more difficult questions like, what are the actual numbers and how will it truly play out? Thankfully, I’m here to show you that this concept of schooling being championed by the GOP is the epitome of “not all that glitters is gold.”
In an attempt to maintain complete transparency, all research and statistical fact-checking for all articles can be found in the bibliography linked here.
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“Fund The Children, Not The Schools”
To keep things clear, all statements from the video will be in bold, while all my responses will be in italics.
Today’s presenter is Corey DeAngelis, national director of research at the American Federation for Children.
Fund the children, not the schools. If ever an idea’s time has come, it’s this one. What does it mean? It means parents decide where to send their children to school, not the government. A radical idea? Hardly. The federal government already gives money to college students in the form of Pell Grants. The student decides which college he or she wants to go to, not the government. The same is true with the GI Bill. The veteran decides which school he wants to give his scholarship money to, not the government. Taxpayer-funded pre-K programs such as “Head Start” follow the same model. Parents decide—not the government—which pre-school they want their children to attend. We don’t force low-income families to spend their food stamp dollars at government-run grocery stores. They can go anywhere they want: Walmart, Target, Safeway, or any other similar store. The time has come to apply the same logic to K through 12 education. It’s hard to believe that we haven’t done it before now.
This is all true, however, I find it interesting that what he uses as examples, the college education and Head Start programs, are both optional. You aren’t required as a parent to ensure your child goes to either Head Start or college. However, you ARE required by law to send your kid to school once they get to a certain age. Though all the options mentioned above are helpful with furthering an education, they aren’t a legal requirement.
Another thing you’ll begin to notice is how Prager keeps using examples of government programs for low-income families like food stamps. I find this to be a really odd choice given how they have traditionally been against these programs, and have done whatever is possible to limit the number of government funds that go into each of them. In fact, when the GI Bill was first introduced as a part of FDR’s “The New Deal,” many detractors called it “socialism.” I guess something is socialist when you don’t like it, but a great example of making a point when it’s convenient.
Fund the children, not the schools. The money is there. Data from the US Census Bureau indicates that public schools spent about $16,000 per student in 2019. For some perspective, data from Private School Review shows that average private school tuition is about $12,000 per student per year. So why is K through 12 education the outlier? As we have seen, in virtually every other area of life, people choose how to spend their money—even when the money comes from the government. But for some reason, parents aren’t allowed to decide the best K through 12 schools for their children. The choice is the norm for pre-K and higher education. Why not for K through 12? Well, there is a reason: it threatens a special interest. A very powerful one. The teacher’s unions. The unions argue that giving educational funds to parents “steals money” from public schools. But where did the idea come from that the funding “belongs” to the public schools in the first place? That’s right, the teacher’s unions.
OK, now it’s time to get into the numbers.
One of the major components to why these types of laws are so difficult to pass comes from how vastly different each city/state/municipality’s needs are for their students. From the number of students in any given area to the realities of income differences of each family in each zip code and the levels of micro-managing that would need to occur with each of these categories would be an economic nightmare. This reality has already begun playing out in states that are trying to adopt these school choice laws. One example of how finances can vastly impact the success of these programs is coming from the state of Missouri. Two bills that passed in the state during the spring of 2022 have now opened the door for these school choices to become a reality. The first, sponsored by Rep. Doug Richey, Republican of Excelsior Springs, would establish a formula by which school districts would transfer funds to charter schools based on student enrollment. The second, sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, Republican of Sedalia, would create an open enrollment system to allow students to transfer to a school district outside of the one in which they reside. Under these bills, starting in the 2023-24 school year, families that own residential or agricultural property where they have paid at least $3,000 in school taxes for at least three years may send up to four kids to a district outside of the one in which they reside and where taxes are paid. When a complete analysis was done on the financials of these plans, the results were found to be somewhat incomplete. In the study, school districts noted it would be difficult to assess the program’s financial impact until the number of students who will participate is known.
However, the Wellsville Middletown R-1 School District shared it would make long-term planning “virtually useless” if enrollment numbers are in flux. And Kansas City Public Schools said the cost of children moving out of the district would be greater than the cost for those receiving, noting a pupil leaving the district would cost roughly $9,000 in state and local aid. “Loss of a child or even two or three from a classroom does not allow the sending district to reduce costs of teachers, transportation, etc., causing the revenue hit to not be balanced with reduced expenditures,” the fiscal analysis read.
Not to mention, the video makes it clear that each student costs $16,000 per year, which means that in order for this to be viable in that sense, each parent would need upwards of $10,000 per student per year to truly be given this kind of freedom the GOP is promising. Most pieces of legislature fall short of this number. For instance, in the same spring of 2022, the Georgia Senate voted down a school choice bill. In that bill, $6,000 would have been diverted from state money for public schools to allow parents to send their children to private schools. Senate Pro Temp Butch Miller said the $6,000 figure represents the average amount of state money a public school is allocated per enrolled student. This does not include differences in the amounts between public and private education, either.
All of these statistics directly answer the next question as to where the idea comes from that funding belongs to the public schools; as we’ve seen, it’s legislation. Whether statewide or national, the laws written are what claim that the funding belongs to the schools, thereby showing the PragerU answer of “teachers unions” to be incorrect.
The truth is the opposite. Public schools “steal” money from families. School choice initiatives just return the money to the hands of the intended beneficiaries of the funding—students and their parents. Allowing families to choose their grocery store doesn’t “steal” money from Safeway. Allowing families to choose their school doesn’t “steal” money from public schools. Ironically, the argument made by public school advocates that school choice would “defund” public schools is an admission of failure. Given a choice, a vast number of Americans would prefer almost any other school to their local public school. But right now, there are few options for parents to express that dissatisfaction. Homeschooling is an option, but many parents believe—rightly or wrongly—that they can’t do it. A private school can be another option, but it may not be financially feasible. This gives unions tremendous leverage. We saw how they used that leverage during the COVID crisis. After a school year of lockdowns, most private schools fought to return to in-person learning. The teachers' unions did the opposite; they fought to stay out of the classroom. If the parents had the power to say “bye-bye, I’m taking my child’s education dollars elsewhere,” the situation would have been much different. The teacher’s unions know this, which is why they scream bloody murder every time the word “choice” is even mentioned.
OK, I have to applaud how effective this talking point has been for the Republican party during COVID. Because the unions, in conjunction with their local governments, and the constant open and re-closing of schools, utterly destroyed the confidence of many parents when it came to trusting the judgments of those who educate our future generations. Also, when you add in that a 2019 national survey of teachers by Harvard’s Education Next found that non-union public school teachers are much more likely to support school choice than their union counterparts, the repeated points made in this video that the teacher’s unions are against school choice does have legs to it. It’s not inaccurate.
Yet, when looking at the bigger picture, there is one thing I can say with certainty: it isn’t the teachers unions who are stifling the idea of school choice. Rather, it’s the actions of the Republican party itself.
In Utah during the 2022 session, HB 331 was introduced to create the Hope Scholarship Program. It would create an education savings account program for eligible students. What’s interesting is the fact that in a state with a house comprised of 58 Republicans and 17 Democrats, a senate with 23 Republicans and 6 Democrats, and Republicans occupying both the governorship and the lieutenant governorship, the governor, Spencer Cox, told reporters that he would veto the bill. Stating, that Utah had “a long way to go before we get there.”
In Oklahoma, Governor Kevin Stitt led the legislative portion of his state of the state address by saying, “We know education is not one-size-fits-all, and I pledge to support any legislation that gives parents more school choice because in Oklahoma, we need to fund students, not systems!” SB 1647, would create a universal education savings account program. It has a very broad set of eligible expenses for students participating in the program, crucially including transportation costs to help students access the learning opportunities that their funds make available. Yet, Oklahoma Speaker of the House Charles McCall stated that he did not even plan to give the bill a hearing. Note, he is not signaling that he would not whip votes for it or that he would vote against it. He doesn’t even want to give the bill a hearing. Even though the Oklahoma house has 82 Republicans and only 19 Democrats, the bill appears to be on life support. Keep this in mind the next few times you see the teacher’s unions being blamed for the failure of the passage of these laws.
Here’s the irony—you might even say tragedy. When faced with competition, public schools do, in fact, up their game. 25 of 27 studies—and the latest peer-reviewed meta-analysis on the topic—find that private school choice competition leads to better outcomes in public schools. For example, a study published in May 2021 reveals that increased competition from expanding private school choices in Florida improved academic and behavioral outcomes in nearby public schools. This is not advanced calculus. In every area of life and commerce, competition invariably leads to a better product. Satisfied customers return. Unsatisfied customers do not.
Here’s another irony; when given more funding, public schools also up their game. When they have the money, then they can hire better teachers with more tenure and then give those teachers a plethora of different teaching methods as the schools can now afford those resources.
Who ran this meta-test? And what were the specific numbers for the academic outcomes found in Florida? And what were the variables for the behavioral outcomes—fewer incidents of youth being sentenced to juvenile detention facilities or something?
I’m sorry Prager, but there’s nothing substantive in this section.
One silver lining of the COVID crisis is that families have seen the light—the light being the need for choice. A recent nationwide survey from RealClear Opinion Research found a 10-percentage point jump in support for school choice—from 64% support in April 2020 to 74% in June 2021. It’s worth noting that support increased 11% among the Democrats—59% to 70%. How many public policy ideas have this level of support? And here’s one more irony, the teacher’s unions get a big share of the credit. They overplayed their hand, and in doing so, they have awakened a sleeping giant: the parents. There’s no turning back now. Parents are demanding more. And they deserve more. So do the kids. Fund the children, not the schools. I’m Corey DeAngelis, national director of research at the American Federation for Children, for Prager University.—end credits.
These numbers seem to bear out with other polls I’ve read on the topic. COVID was easily one of the greatest assistants to the school choice ideology proliferating as it has. As I mentioned, the back-and-forth between the teachers, school leaders, and local and federal health agencies on whether children should return to school has been a constant headline fodder since day one. This fact led to constant turmoil parents had to endure; a turmoil centered around not being able to make any plans for their life on a week-to-week basis. This uncertainty led to a deterioration of trust that has allowed public schools to come under fire while allowing for the passage of serious legislation that could impact the future of the American educational system for generations to come.
As a former step-dad of a school-age child, I have seen firsthand what deficiencies can be found in public education. However, there are enough unknown factors when it comes to the financial aspects of making this work that I’m not ready to dive in headfirst. Interestingly enough, though the GOP doesn’t have those numbers figured out either, they’re already sporting their swim trunks.
If you can spare a few bucks to support a starving artist, buy me a coffee!