A conservative's dilemma

Mississippi
Governor Haley Barbour, a prospective 2012 GOP presidential candidate, issued
an unconventional statement last month when he challenged fellow Republicans
to take a critical look at the defense budget: “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 potential presidential candidates, rarely 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?"

What's more important for conservatives--more school choice or making ends meet?

 
   
 

As with defense,
most conservative Republicans have been staunch supporters of school choice and
its expansion. For this reason, observers in Fordham’s home state of Ohio
expected Governor John Kasich to support a significant growth in both charter
schools and private-school vouchers. True to form, the governor’s recently
released budget for the next two years does in fact offer up a healthy portion
of school choice by lifting charter-school caps and expanding the state’s
voucher scholarship program, EdChoice. The Kasich version would indeed expand
choice, but not at a dramatic clip and not to many middle-class families or
districts beyond the state’s urban centers.

Two other bills
already being debated in the General Assembly would go a lot further. They
would create the Parental Choice and Taxpayer Savings Scholarship Program,
opening up private-school scholarship awards ranging from $2,313 to $4,626 to
students from families with household incomes up to $100,000, award amounts to
be based on a sliding scale related to actual income. There would be no
geographic restriction on these scholarships (as currently applies to charter
schools) nor any requirement that the students come from a failing public
school (as is the case with the state’s existing voucher program.)

What’s more, by
2012-2013, these bills 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.)

While the program
would dramatically expand school choice in Ohio, it would in time result in new
costs. Ohio’s next biennial budget is already plagued by a deficit approaching
$8 billion and no one expects a rapid recovery in the state’s revenues. 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.
Recognizing that shifting some kids from public to private schools is supposed
to save money on the public side (though superintendents argue that such
savings are extremely hard to realize in practice), subsidizing private-school
students who currently attend without such subsidy is indisputably a net additional
cost to the public fisc.

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, some of whom are already exercising choice at their
own expense? Just as Barbour and others are starting to question how much
defense spending the nation can afford, school reformers must consider how much
school choice we can afford. What’s more important for conservatives—more
school choice or making ends meet?

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on vouchers from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

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