School Choice Programs Save a Ton of Money: Where Could It All Go?

I talk to you a lot about how expanding access to more schools through choice programs could help Colorado Kids Win. But the truth is that these choice programs also have another benefit: they help save money for the states that adopt them. What does that mean?

More dollars left over for each student who remains in the public school system, or funds available for other things state governments pay for, or even maybe money back to taxpayers. Who knows? In any case, the point is that as students exercise choice and leave the system, they wouldn’t take out as much money as it costs to educate one more student. Here’s the kicker:

A new thoughtful analysis by the Friedman Foundation’s Jeff Spalding — who apparently not only is a repeat fantasy football champion but also an aficionado of both Elton John AND Roger Federer (oh, and is a credentialed and experienced fiscal analyst) — finds that from 1990 to 2010, school voucher programs combined to save $1.7 billion!!

Spalding does a thorough job of laying out arguments about how he takes into account fixed costs, using a fairly conservative model. Still, I am happy to let you know the report uses pictures (yippee!) to show how the participation in voucher programs — and thus the savings — has grown over time. But then it gets really wild, as the author offers up a big “what-if”:

In fact, if the private school enrollment share had held steady at 12.7 percent throughout the entire 25-year period, from 1985 through 2010, spending on the K-12 public schools across the United States could have been as much as $222 billion less.

…At a theoretical voucher amount of 50 percent of the public school average spending per student, awarded to just enough students each year to maintain a 12.7 percent private school enrollment share, taxpayers could have saved as much as $111 billion, through 2010, by “spending” on a new school voucher program.

Now we’re talking real money! What do you do with all those extra dollars? My parents would say put them away to save for college. I say set it aside for the all-important Lego Fund. But the reality is a lot of that money could have been given back into public schools without raising taxes, which I suspect most of the officials out there would do.

Would that have helped? I don’t know. It’s all a hypothetical. What isn’t hypothetical is the real money saved by existing small-scale voucher programs (especially those McKay Scholarships in Florida), and even more importantly, all those students who have found a better fit to challenge and motivate them for a successful future!

Next up? Hopefully, savings from scholarship tax credit programs….