How School Choice Saves Money

School choice programs expand educational opportunity, but at what cost?

Opponents of school choice frequently claim that vouchers and scholarship tax creditssiphon” money from public schools and increase the overall cost of education to the taxpayers. However, these critics generally fail to consider the reduction in expenses associated with students switching out of the district school system, wrongly assuming that all or most school costs are fixed. When students leave, they claim, a school cannot significantly reduce its costs because it cannot cut back on its major expenses, like buildings, utilities, and labor. But if that were true, then schools would require little to no additional funds to teach additional students. A proper fiscal analysis considers both the diverted or decreased revenue as well as the reduction in expenses related to variable costs.

A new study by Jeff Spalding, Director of Fiscal Policy at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, does exactly that. The study examines the fiscal impact of 10 of the 21 school voucher programs nationwide, finding a cumulative savings to states of at least $1.7 billion over two decades. Spalding, the former comptroller/CFO for the city of Indianapolis, is cautious, methodical, and transparent in his analysis. He walks readers through the complex process of determining the fiscal impact of each program, identifying the impact of each variable and explaining equation along the way. He also makes relatively conservative assumptions, such as counting food service and interscholastic athletics as fixed costs even though they are variable with enrollment. Critically, Spalding accounts for those students who would have attended private school anyway, explaining:

One common complicating factor is student eligibility. If a voucher program allows students already enrolled in a private school to qualify, then those students do not directly relieve the public school system of any costs. Thus, there is a new public cost incurred for the vouchers provided to those students, but no corresponding savings for the public school system. Anytime voucher eligibility extends to students not currently enrolled in a public school, the net savings calculation must include that complicating factor.

States save money when the variable cost of each student to the district schools is greater than the cost of the voucher, accounting for the students who would have attended private school anyway. After wading through each state’s byzantine school funding formula, Spalding calculated that the voucher programs reduced expenditures across all 10 programs by $4.5 billion over two decades while costing states $2.8 billion, producing $1.7 billion in savings.

In the last 40 years, government spending on K-12 education has nearly tripled while results have been flat. Moreover, the Census Bureau projects that the elderly will make up an increasingly larger share of the population in the coming decades, straining state budgets with spending on health care and retirement benefits. Schools will have to compete with hospitals and nursing homes for scarce resources.

In other words, our education system needs to become more effective and financially efficient, fast. Large-scale school choice programs promise to do both.

Amtrak Shouldn’t Get to Write Its Own Ticket

Article One, Section One of the Constitution vests “all legislative powers” in Congress. The sovereign power to make laws comes from the people, so their representatives—Congress—should make those laws.

It sounds simple enough, but once the federal government started ballooning in size and regulating everything under the sun, that simple understanding had to go. There was too much governing for Congress to handle on its own, so the courts adjusted, allowing a proliferation of government agencies to exercise lawmaking power, within certain guidelines.&

We’ve now apparently gotten to the point, however, that there’s so much governing to do that it’s too much for the government to handle on its own. In a case now before the Supreme Court, Amtrak—the for-profit, quasi-public entity that the federal government has deemed private for these purposes—has been given a part to play in making laws to regulate its competitors in the rail transportation industry.

Addressing the Critics of This Purportedly No Good, Very Bad Chart

For the past few years I have charted the trends in American education spending and performance (see below). The goal is to see what the national data suggest about the productivity of our education system over time. Clearly, these data suggest that our educational productivity has collapsed: the inflation-adjusted cost of sending a student all the way through the K-12 system has almost tripled while test scores near the end of high-school remain largely unchanged. Put another way, per-pupil spending and achievement are not obviously correlated.

Not everyone is happy with these charts, and in this post I’ll respond to the critics, starting with the most recent: Matt DiCarlo of the Albert Shanker Institute, an organization that honors the life and legacy of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. DiCarlo finds the chart “misleading,” “exasperating,” and seemingly designed to “start a conversation by ending it.” Since we’re actually having a conversation about the chart and what it shows, and since I’ve had countless such conversations over the years, perhaps we can agree that the last of those accusations is more of a rhetorical flourish than a serious argument.

Venezuela: A Military Regime

Bloomberg has a story today on the many perks that the Venezuelan army enjoys vis-à-vis the downtrodden civilian population. Whereas a regular Venezuelan has to line up for hours to get basic goods (when they are available), officers enjoy privileged access to fully stocked supermarkets, new cars, housing, and many other benefits.

The obvious strategy of the Venezuelan government is to keep the armed forces happy in case it needs them to hold on to power.  But the reality is far worse.  In fact, Venezuela is now a military regime. Even though President Nicolás Maduro is a civilian, he is surrounded by people who have donned a uniform: according to Bloomberg, “A third of Venezuela’s 28 ministers and half the state governors are now active or retired officers.”

The rise in prices is not the only kind of inflation affecting Venezuela. Bloomberg reports that “its military now has between 4,000 and 5,000 generals” for a ratio of one general for every 34 servicemen (in the United States the ratio is one general per 1,490 servicemen). As expected, generals enjoy higher salaries and many other benefits. Moreover, the intelligence community believes that high-ranking army officers control most illegal activities in Venezuela, from smuggling to drug trafficking. In other words, military men are profiteering from the status quo.

All this points to an unlikely scenario where the armed forces would threaten the continuity of chavismo in power. Just the opposite, the army will be a key actor in propping up the regime, even if Venezuelans decide otherwise in the polls.

New York Airbnb Law Hurting B&Bs

The campaign against Airbnb in New York City has claimed some surprising collateral damage – actual B&Bs. According to Mary White of BnB Finder, half of all the B&Bs in the city have closed down since legislation in 2011 aimed at limiting Airbnb abuses came into effect. The statewide law prohibits building owners renting rooms in residential buildings and apartments for less than 30 days.

The law may have been aimed at preventing apartment buildings from being turned into illegal hotels, but it has resulted in fines being issued to B&B owners. The owner of one of New York City’s B&Bs launched an advocacy group in 2011 that lobbies for changes in legislation but does not list its members. Given the legislation affecting B&Bs it is understandable that BnB owners would be hesitant to increase their exposure. A Crain’s New York Business article on the decline of B&Bs in New York City quotes the owner of a Brooklyn inn, who limits the amount of attention her business receives online in order to avoid city investigators:

Most people don’t even know B&Bs exist in the city. Now many innkeepers are keeping a lower profile, hoping not to attract the city’s attention.

The owner of a European-style inn in Brooklyn, who did not want to be identified, said she limits her online exposure by not listing her property with travel sites like Expedia. The reason is twofold: She wants to speak personally with her guests before they arrive to ensure “that the people who stay with us won’t steal anything from us,” and to keep out of the crosshairs of city investigators.

Airbnb has made enough on an impact in New York City for hotel industry representatives, local officials, and activists to launch Share Better, a coalition group which claims the popular site is contributing to New York City’s affordable housing crisis and allowing tenants to violate lease agreements. Earlier this month, I wrote about Share Better’s claims and discussed the regulatory gray area Airbnb operates in with MSNBC’s Eric Ortega and The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber.

As Share Better continues to make its arguments against Airbnb, regulators and lawmakers should not forget the recent decline in New York City B&Bs, the hard hit unintended victims of anti-competitive rental restrictions.

The Federal Government and American Indians

As research for this essay on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). I found virtually no information useful for my project.

I stopped by the museum information desk on the way out and said something to the effect, “There is very little here about the relationship between Indians and the federal government, yet that relationship is central to the story of American Indians over the last two centuries.” A few months ago, I emailed a similar complaint to the head of the NMAI, and he did kindly respond to me.

The museum has now taken a big step toward fixing the problem with its new exhibit about the history of treaties between tribes and the federal government. It’s a good exhibit, telling some of the stories about how the government deceived and cheated the Indians again and again, depriving them of their lands, resources, and freedom.

The general topic is interesting to me because it illustrates numerous libertarian themes, including the arrogance and dishonesty of federal officials, the eagerness of officials to substitute their own goals for individual freedom, government corruption, the failure of top-down planning from Washington, and the inability of hand-outs to create lasting prosperity.

As I discuss in my essay, there has been good news on Indian reservations in recent decades. But the federal government continues to fail in creating the legal structure needed so that people on reservations can prosper. One long-standing problem is the very poor functioning of law enforcement. In a story today about Indian tribes in North Dakota, the Washington Post says:

Investigating crime on Fort Berthold is more difficult than most places because the reservation sits in six different counties each with its own sheriff — some of whom do not have a good relationship with the tribe, according to tribal members. If the victim and suspect are both Native American, the tribal police or the FBI handles the arrest. But if the suspect is not Native American, in most cases the tribal police can detain the suspect but then have to call the sheriff in the county where the crime occurred. Sometimes they have to wait several hours before a deputy arrives to make the arrest. In a murder case, the state or the FBI might be involved, depending on the race of the victim and the suspect.

“There are volumes of treatises on Indian law that are written about this stuff,” Purdon said. “It’s very complicated. And we’re asking guys with guns and badges in uniforms at 3:30 in the morning with people yelling at each other to make these decisions — to understand the law and be able to apply it.”

I don’t know what the best solution to these particular problems is. I do know that the U.S. Constitution empowered the federal government to engage with the tribes, and that Congress should spend more time tackling such fundamental issues. Unfortunately, most members of Congress focus most of their efforts on hundreds of programs not authorized by the Constitution.

Anyway, kudos to the Washington Post for doing a series on justice issues in Native American communities. And kudos to the NMAI for informing the public about the government’s often appalling behavior over two centuries of dealing with the first Americans.

The Real Costs of HealthCare.gov

In May, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell testified to Congress that costs for building HealthCare.gov were $834 million. New research from Bloomberg Government suggests that Burwell’s estimate represents a low-end estimate.

According to the new report, spending for HealthCare.gov has been an estimated $2.14 billion. Burwell’s estimates did not include numerous costs related to the project. For instance, she did not include the contract costs for processing paper applications, which are used as a backup. That contract cost $300 million.

Burwell’s figure also does not include spending at the IRS and other agencies related to ACA requirements. For instance, the IRS is required to provide real-time interfacing with HealthCare.gov to verify income and family size for insurance subsidy calculations. Those requirements cost $387 million.

Bloomberg also includes $400 million in costs that were excluded by HHS using creative accounting. When it wrote the ACA, Congress did not appropriate money to HHS for the construction of a federal exchange. Instead, it provided unlimited grants to states to construct their portals. When many states refused to construct their exchanges, HHS was forced to develop HealthCare.gov, but without a dedicated source of funding. HHS said it would need to “get creative” about funding options, leaving many wondering where HHS would eventually get the money. According to Bloomberg, HHS shifted money around to finance the construction of HealthCare.gov, using a number of existing contracts to finance the website’s construction.

Finally, Bloomberg included $255 million more in costs than Burwell due to time period differences. Burwell’s costs were as of February 2014. Bloomberg included costs until August 20, 2014, and then projected the current level of spending forward to the end of the fiscal year, September 30th. But this means that their figures are likely conservative too because federal agencies often ramp up spending— particularly contract spending—as it closes out its fiscal year.

Implementing the ACA is a costly exercise; Bloomberg says the $2.14 billion for HealthCare.gov administration is only a small part of the full $73 billion costs of Obamacare since its passage in 2010. But the administration nonetheless owes taxpayers an accurate accounting for the costs of the system.