A Conservative’s Dilemma: School Choice versus Fiscal Responsibility

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a prospective 2012 GOP presidential candidate, challenged Republicans to take a critical look at the defense budget earlier this month when he told a reporter in Iowa, “Anybody who says you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon. We can save money on defense, and if we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we’ll have no credibility on anything else.”

Republicans, especially those considering a run for president, don’t usually challenge defense spending, let alone when the nation is engaged in multiple wars. But these are not ordinary times. More and more, voters and politicians alike are asking what can we afford and where should we cut?

Like with defense, most conservative Republicans have been staunch supporters of school choice and its expansion. For this reason, observers in Ohio expected Governor John Kasich to support a significant growth in both charter schools and private school vouchers. The governor’s budget indeed offers up a healthy portion of school choice that includes lifting caps on charter schools and expanding the number of vouchers available to children in failing public schools through the state’s EdChoice scholarship program. Such moves will expand choice, but not at a dramatic clip and not to many middle-class families or districts beyond the state’s urban centers. Ohio’s choice programs will continue mostly serving kids in failing schools and long-troubled districts.

This could change, however, if either House Bill 136 or Senate Bill 128, companion bills currently being debated in the General Assembly, becomes law. These bills would create the Parental Choice and Taxpayer Savings Scholarship Program, which would award private school scholarships worth $4,626 to students from families with annual household incomes of up to one-and-a-half times the federal reduced-price lunch eligibility level (up to about $61,000 for a family of four, based on current standards). Students from families with household incomes up to two-and-a-half times the reduced-price lunch eligibility level (just over $100,000 this year for a family of four) would be eligible for scholarships ranging from $2,313 and $4,626, awarded on a sliding scale based on actual income.  There is no geographic restriction on these scholarships (as currently applies to charter schools) or requirement that the students come from a failing public school (as is the case with the EdChoice program).

Further, by the 2012-2013 school year HB136/SB128 would allow some families with children already enrolled in private schools to use the scholarship to meet tuition costs they are currently paying out of pocket. Ohio has roughly 250,000 students enrolled in private schools, and many of these children and their families would be eligible for some amount of assistance for tuition. The program would expand school choice in Ohio for middle-class parents with children in private schools, but it would create new costs for taxpayers.

The out-year cost of such an expansion in school choice raises concerns about the state’s ability to fund it. Ohio’s next biennial budget is already plagued by a nearly $8 billion deficit and no one expects a rapid recovery in the state’s coffers. Public education is going to operate with at least a couple billion dollars less funding over the next two years, and no programs are immune from cuts.

These fiscal realities raise an uncomfortable question for school choice supporters, myself included.  Is now the right time to support the creation of a new school choice program that is essentially aimed at middle-class families? Just as some Republicans are starting to question how much defense spending the nation can afford, it is time for school reformers to ask tough questions about how much school choice we can afford. What’s more important for conservatives – more school choice or making our ends meet?

– Terry Ryan

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