Wednesday, July 24, 2019

How much is Arizona spending to bail out private schools?

Posted By on Wed, Jul 24, 2019 at 9:07 AM

Tucson's Green Fields private school is closing. According to an article in the Star, the school's enrollment has fallen from 246 students in 2001 to as few as 105 in 2015. Green Fields is a K-12 school, so the 2015 enrollment numbers work out to an average of eight students per grade. No school can remain financially viable with so few students.

Understandably, students who were planning to attend this coming school year and their families are mourning the school's closing. Actually, though, closures like Green Fields' would be a far more regular occurrence in Arizona, except for one thing. You and I and all the state's taxpayers are helping the schools stay afloat by chipping in to pay students' tuition. Not all students, of course, but a substantial number. I'm not just talking about students from low income homes whose parents couldn't otherwise send their children to private school. High income families are using our money to help pay tuition costs as well.

How much are we chipping in? Last year, nearly $200 million which otherwise would have been in the state's coffers, money which could have been used to boost our shamefully low education budget, is paying for children to go to private schools.

$200 million a year is a whole lot of money. Far too much for my taste. I don't like the idea of using taxpayer money to prop up privately funded schools which can't cut it in the private sector. People on the right like to say, governments shouldn't be picking winners and losers in the marketplace by giving some of them subsidies, but somehow they're fine with using $200 million to help private schools survive.

OK, I'll admit, I don't like private school vouchers, period, and I especially don't like them when they run into hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But I want to try and be fair. If that $200 million means a lot more students are attending private schools, that might not be such a bad deal for taxpayers. After all, if those kids weren't in private schools, we would have to pay for their public educations.

So let's take a look at the kind of bang we're getting for our voucher bucks.

Private school tuition tax credits, the state's first voucher program, began in 1999. Back then, before vouchers, 44,050 students attended Arizona's private schools, about 5 percent of the student population.

How did private school enrollment look in 2015, the most recent year I can find data for? In 2015, the number had risen to 46,250, which is an addition of 2,200 students over 17 years of taxpayer-funded vouchers — about 130 new students a year. That doesn't sound like the kind growth you should expect given the investment we're making.

That 2,200 student growth looks even worse when you realize the state population was increasing rapidly over those years, along with the number of students. During those 17 years, Arizona added 260,000 K-12 students. As a result, private schools slipped as a proportion of the entire student population, from 5 percent in 1999 to 4 percent in 2015.

With all that taxpayer-funded voucher money pouring in, private schools still lost ground.

Here's a math problem for you. If Arizona had 2,200 more private school students in 2015 than in 1999, and in 2015, we spent $150 million on vouchers. How much were taxpayers pitching in for each new student? You'll probably need to grab a calculator to figure it out, so let me give you the answer. It comes to $68,200 per new student.

Once again, I'll try to be fair here. Private schools have been losing ground around the country, more so in states which don't prop the schools up with taxpayer-funded vouchers, so maybe the vouchers actually added more than 2,200 to the private school student population. Maybe they stopped private school enrollment from sliding into negative numbers. Maybe more schools would have gone the way of Green Fields and shut down.

A Grand Canyon Institute study estimates that in 2016, our voucher programs added about 13,200 students to private schools. Another way of putting that is, without the help of vouchers private schools would have lost 13,200 students. I think the CGI number is too large, but never mind. The institute has some good number crunchers working for it.

If CGI is right, think of what that number means. Without vouchers the schools would have lost 11,000 students instead of gaining 2,200. This gives an indication of how weak the private school sector is and how much it needed its taxpayer-funded lifeline.

Using the GCI numbers, taxpayers were spending $10,700 per added private school student in 2016. That's far lower than the $68,200 I came up with but that year, the per-student cost at district and charter schools was closer to $7,500. Even using the institute's generous estimate, it cost taxpayers $3,200 more to send a student to private school than to a public school.

Private schools are in trouble across the country. The advent of charter schools certainly has drawn away potential students. So, possibly, has the general trend toward people being less involved with religion, since at least 70 percent of private school students attend religious-affiliated schools.

The privatization/"education reform" crowd that spends hundreds of millions a year to demonize and dismantle "government schools" are unhappy with private schools' downward trend, so they're doing what they can to keep tuition-based schools alive. That's why Republican-majority legislatures like ours have been pushing vouchers so hard for years, and why Trump's education secretary Betsy DeVos spends more time promoting vouchers than supporting school districts and their students. As a result, we taxpayers are footing the bill for the conservatives' education agenda.

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