A Texas-sized idea

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Sometimes it takes a budget crisis like the one virtually all states are facing to spawn a great idea. As the Texas legislative session nears its close, Representative Sid Miller (R-Stephenville) has introduced just such an idea: taxpayer savings grants. As is the case in every state, a huge proportion of Texas’s budget is spent on public schools. Now Texas has an opportunity to shore up its state budget while improving the quality of education for its children. The remaining four days in the state’s biennial legislative session will determine whether Texas is ready to demonstrate the kind of bold national leadership it prides itself on.

The idea behind taxpayer savings grants is simple. The program would offer parents with children in public schools a choice: continue sending your children to public school (or enroll them for the first time in kindergarten or first grade) or let the state buy you out by providing you with up to 60 percent of what the state would spend on your children’s education as reimbursement for private school tuition. If private school tuition is less than the $5,100 the 60 percent represents, then parents would be reimbursed the lesser amount. If it is more, then parents would have to make up the difference. In either event, the state would retain 40 percent of what it would have spent on operational costs associated with these children without incurring any actual costs. Public school class sizes would be reduced and parents who couldn’t previously afford private schools would find them within reach. Researchers estimate that such a program could save Texas taxpayers more than $2 billion over the next two years alone — an amount that would put a significant dent in the state’s projected budget shortfall.

Smaller public school class sizes, significant savings on public education and expanded opportunities for Texas children to secure a good education; what’s not to like about this idea? In Texas as elsewhere, a little more than half of the cost of educating students consists of local funds, and all those funds would remain in the local school districts. Only state funds would be used for the program.

The program would, of course, be totally voluntary. Experience with privately funded scholarship programs has proven that many parents would jump at the idea of state assistance to send their children to private schools. Back in the 1990s, for example, when private philanthropists put up enough money to fund 40,000 partial scholarships, 1.4 million children signed up. That experience converted many former opponents of public scholarship programs into supporters, including people like former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. He recognized that such scholarships are particularly critical for students trapped in failing urban schools that — despite decades of reform efforts, including huge budget increases — continue to produce nearly as many drop-outs as graduates, and whose graduates need substantial remediation if they go on to post-secondary education.

Challenging times like these call for creative responses. Taxpayer savings grants are one such creative response to the budget crisis created by the recession. Texas has a chance to lead the way in providing parents with greater educational freedom, while saving the state substantial money in the process. Texas has led the nation in job growth during these trying times; perhaps it can lead the nation in educational innovation as well.

Richard Komer is a senior attorney and Matt Miller is the Texas Chapter executive director for the Institute for Justice.

Richard Komer & Matt Miller