In 2012, many of the politicians who now control the North Carolina General Assembly ran on pledges of “fiscal conservatism” and reducing government spending. Indeed, many prominent members of the current majority continue to style themselves as “common-sense fiscal conservatives.”
There’s a disappointing lack of common sense, however, in the proposed “Opportunity Scholarships” program included in the current House budget. The program would provide school vouchers—up to $4,200 each—for K-12 students to attend private schools instead of traditional public schools. The current budget proposal appropriates $10 million for the program in the first year, and jumps to $40 million for the second. In a time of huge cuts to our public school system, there is no common sense in taking much needed resources from our students and teachers and asking them again to somehow do more with less.
Instead of being fiscally conservative, this voucher scheme is fiscally irresponsible, since it will cost the state money every year after the first. In fact, the larger the program becomes, the more money it will lose for North Carolinians.
Voucher proponents initially claimed that the vouchers would save money. These claims were abandoned, however, after the official fiscal note accompanying the original bill (House Bill 944) demonstrated that the voucher program will save the state money only in the first year. For each subsequent year, the program will drain at least $2 million and potentially over $12 million in a single year. The long-term cost to our public schools from these vouchers far outweighs any initial savings the program might deliver.
Although vouchers have been portrayed as a “way out” for struggling public school students, the reality is that many of these “scholarships” will go to children who were planning on attending private schools anyway. According to the same fiscal note, approximately 2,977 (30%) of the 9,925 vouchers to be awarded in 2014 will go to students who would have attended a private school even without a voucher (this includes kindergarteners, first graders, foster children, children adopted during the previous school year, and students who were already planning to transfer from public to private schools). This will cost $11.88 million. If public school students take the remaining 6,948 vouchers, they will save the State $881 each (current per-pupil expenditure of $4,871 minus projected average voucher amount of $3,990), for a total reduction of $6.12 million. That leaves North Carolina’s taxpayers with a $5.76 million bill for vouchers–and traditional public schools with 40 million fewer dollars to spend on students.
The General Assembly’s willingness to throw the state further into debt in order to create an unnecessary and costly voucher program reveals the failure of “fiscal conservatives” to live up to their own promises and values. One thing is very clear: this program is not about saving money. It is not about holding schools accountable either, since private schools are not subject to the same reporting requirements as public schools. Perhaps most importantly, it cannot be about improving student achievement, since research shows that students who took vouchers in Milwaukee and Cleveland did not show significant improvement on standardized tests when compared to similarly situated public school students. Rather, these “scholarships” represent just one more dimension of the extreme privatization/anti-government agenda of the state’s current leadership.
Let’s hope that the combination of sunlight and public pressure convince lawmakers to turn back from this costly and potentially disastrous path. After all, they ought to know: we shouldn’t be spending scarce public funds on failed programs that we do not need. It’s just common sense.