COMMENTARY: In God We Trust, All Others Bring Evidence

March 17, 2021

Benjamin Scafidi, Ph.D.

Guest Contributor

Proposals in the South Carolina Legislature to give families more opportunities to choose schools and educational settings for their children have come under fire, including in a recent newspaper column by College of Charleston professor Kendall Deas.

Deas defends a public education system that has had stubbornly persistent achievement gaps between students—for decades.  He defends a system that spends more and more money each year for stagnant results.  For example, South Carolina’s public schools received twice as much funding per student in recent years as compared to 1980, adjusted for inflation.

And, Professor Deas was critical of Senator Tim Scott’s support of empowering families to make more educational decisions for their children.

The actual evidence indicates that Senator Scott’s ideas are what will improve educational outcomes for all children, whereas Deas’ ideas have been tried for decades—and have failed.

Deas claims that choice programs defund public schools. But when a student leaves a public school district – for any reason – not all dollars follow.  Specifically, funding from local taxpayers is not allocated on a per-pupil basis.  When a public school district loses students via private school choice – or for any reason, such as moving to another district – it retains locally generated funding and a significant portion of federal funding as well, such as funding for special-needs students.  So public schools get to retain large portions of funds for students they no longer serve.

Let me state that again—public schools get to retain large portions of funding for students they no longer serve.  So, when students leave public schools for any reason, there are actually more funds available on a per student basis.

To my knowledge, no other enterprise in America gets to retain a significant portion of funds for customers they no longer serve, including universities. As another example, if you switch from Food Lion to Walmart, Food Lion does not get to keep 20% of your future grocery bill to cover its “fixed costs.”  Yet public schools get to keep an even higher proportion of student funding than that when they lose students for any reason.

The charge that choice programs would somehow defund public schools is simply a myth.  Further, it does not seem that South Carolina public schools have been starving of cash—for example, since 1994 the number of public school students in South Carolina has increased about 21 percent, while the number of public school employees has increased over 40 percent.  Thus, employment growth in South Carolina public school has been almost double what has been needed to accommodate enrollment growth.

Twenty-five out of 27 studies on the subject find that when some students leave via choice programs that public school students experience modest learning gains.  So, it seems that public schools do improve—when families are offered a choice to go elsewhere.

Second, Deas claims that choice will cause segregation—which is also contradicted by the evidence.

Six of the seven studies on integration (from three states and the D.C. scholarship program) find private school choice programs have improved school integration while the seventh study finds no visible effect. These studies, from a variety of researchers, can be found: here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Meanwhile, public school segregation has been increasing or lagged improvements in neighborhood integration.  While American society has been integrating in neighborhoods, adoption, marriage, voting and other respects, public schools have been the anomaly.

The evidence suggests that those who support integration should support educational choice.

As shown in the hyperlinks in this piece, supporters of giving families more choice in education have evidence on their side.  Supporters of the public school status quo continue their pleas for more of your tax money and a promise to do better.  In fact, they have been getting lots more of your money and have been promising to do better since World War II.

It is time to stop believing their promises and go with the evidence.  We can have a better education system for our children, if we are willing to let families make decisions instead of federal, state, and local bureaucracies.

Dr. Ben Scafidi is a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University and director of KSU’s Education Economics Center.