Effective education reforms provide savings

Jeff Reed

As Nevadans shop this holiday season, most will seek out the best deals and spend their money wisely to maximize tight budgets.

The State of Nevada could, and should, do the same for its residents, by adding some cost-savings items to its 2011 K-12 shopping list.

Governor-elect Brian Sandoval will have to cope with a $1 billion budget deficit when he takes office. With public education consuming a huge chunk of the state budget, cuts could be on the table. But they need not be too painful. Reapportioning state education dollars to school choice programs would allow the state to provide children with effective education while also producing cost savings for taxpayers.

School choice vouchers — and tax-credit scholarships distributed by nonprofit organizations — allow families to access part of the government funding allotted for their children, and use those dollars to send them to schools of their choice, private or otherwise. Although such proposals do cost money, they cost less than the amount spent on students in traditional public schools.

How do vouchers and tax-credit scholarships produce savings? A new school choice program enacted this year in Oklahoma shows how. Parents of disabled children there can receive vouchers worth either 95 percent of the state and local dollars currently "attached" to their child or private school tuition, whichever is less. The program is guaranteed to be fiscally neutral, with a strong possibility of even saving taxpayers money.

Other school choice programs across the country realize these savings with similar measures: Tax-credit scholarship programs, for example, might provide scholarships worth just a portion of private school tuition or cap the scholarship amount at a smaller percentage of total per-pupil expenditures. Florida's tax-credit scholarship program provided the state a net savings of $36.2 million in fiscal year 2008-09, according to the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

Nationwide, in 2007, Dr. Susan Aud of the Foundation for Educational Choice found that school choice programs in place between 1990 and 2006 produced $444 million in net savings to state and local budgets. That may not seem like a lot of money given today's billion- and trillion-dollar spending programs, but taxpayers need every cent they can get. And they also need every tax dollar received by government to be spent as effectively as possible.

In a 2008 study, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas found that of "the ten separate analyses of…‘gold standard' experimental studies of voucher programs, nine conclude that some or all of the participants benefited academically from using a voucher to attend a private school." None conclude there is a negative effect.

Currently, there are 26 school choice programs in 16 states and the District of Columbia, serving some 190,000 students. Approximately 700,000 students' educational costs are being reduced by personal tax credits and deductions. None of these private-school choice programs are available to Nevada families. But they should be, because every parent deserves the right to decide how their child is educated. And, as evidenced by his campaign platform, governor-elect Sandoval agrees.

Although Nevada has a Republican in the governor's office and Democrats with majorities in the state legislature, Nevadans should know that school choice is not a partisan issue. To take just one of many examples, Oklahoma's voucher program for students with disabilities was passed by a bipartisan House and a Republican Senate, and signed by a Democrat governor. When kids' needs and interests are put first, such votes become very easy.

As the current economic crisis dries up Nevada's state budget, leaders should be looking for some streams in the desert. School choice not only would quench their thirst for savings, it also would lead families to an oasis of quality educational opportunities.

Jeff W. Reed is a state program director for the Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Milton and Rose Friedman, and a contributing writer for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.