Education Opinion

The Financial Fantasies of Choice

By Peter Greene — September 10, 2014 4 min read
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Proponents of choice systems, whether they’re talking about charters or vouchers, depend on certain financial fictions to make their case. Like beach-bound vampires wearing SPF 110 sunscreen, these robust and rigorous fictions just won’t die. Let’s examine some of these dancing unicorns of the choice world.

System Savings

In the 1960s, Pennsylvania strongly encouraged its many small township-based school districts to consolidate. It did so because of an obvious piece of common sense-- it is cheaper and more efficient to educate 100 students in one school building to spread them out over four separate buildings.

Choice systems sometimes hide the additional costs by transfering them to parents or corporate sponsors or fund-raising projects. Charters can also bridge the financial gap by slashing teacher pay and maintaining high turnover so that there’s little to no cost for benefits and pensions; that’s just transfering the additional costs of a choice system to the teachers who work in it. But the bottom line is that opening a whole bunch of schools to serve a population that previously fit into one is cost-ineffective and usually more expensive. There may be clever methods used to hide the additional costs, but it is still there.

Cost Per Pupil

Let’s say you read a statement that a car is stolen every forty-four seconds in this country. That’s a lot of cars to steal, and a tough crime wave to put a dent in. But hey-- that means that about 163 cars are stolen between 2:00 and 4:00 AM every day. Streets are pretty quiet then-- it would be easy to spot nefarious doings. So let’s create a federal grant to stem the tide of auto theft in those early morning hours. It will save almost 60,000 stolen cars a year!

Except, of course, that it really won’t, because every statement about how [Bad Thing A] happens every [unit of time] is a fiction, a way to present data that is easily understood. But there is no ring of car thieves out there carefully and precisely stealing a car every forty-four seconds.

Likewise, Cost Per Pupil is a fiction. It makes a neat number for comparison of different districts, but a $10K per pupil expense does not mean that East Podwallow Schools are actually spending precisely $10K on each student.

Choice fans like to treat the per pupil cost as if it’s a stipend, a chunk of money set aside for each specific student. The money, they insist, does not belong to the taxpayer or the school district, but should follow the student around like an imprinted gosling. But the per pupil cost is not an education allowance from the government that can be put into any educational vending machine.

Public schools are brutalized by this fiction time after time. If Chris leaves my school, taking “his” $10K with him, my school’s expenses do not decrease. We do not hire fewer teachers, run fewer buses, heat the building to a lower temperature, or turn Chris’s textbooks in for a refund from the publisher.

This remains true if ten of Chris’s friends (and another $100K) leave the school. Or twenty- unless by some bizarre coincidence all twenty leave from the same classroom. And by the same token, when ten more students move into the district, the budget does not increase by $100K.

These statistical fictions have a place, particularly in comparison. If one city has a car stolen “every day” and another has them stolen “every twelve hours,” it helps me decide when to park. And if Blorgville Schools spend $10K per pupil and East Woggle Schools spend $18K, that tells me something about how the districts are different. But it does not tell me that each student in East Woggle has a literal $18K paying for her education.


That Cost Per Pupil amount is not an allowance paid to students by the state, and to treat it as such is to disenfranchise every taxpayer who contributed to it. Parents and students are not entitled to clutch that not-actually-a-stipend and claim, “This is mine. My school choice is only about me, and not about anybody else.”

It is about other people. It’s about the students left behind in the public school that is now some number of dollars poorer. And it is about the taxpayers who now have no say in how the money they invested in public schools will be spent. Every taxpayer is a stakeholder, because every citizen hopes to live in a country filled with educated people.

“Schools take money from taxpayers without giving them a say,” protest the choice fans. That is simply untrue. School board members are elected, and taxpayers have a say (aka “vote”). That’s true everywhere except in places like Newark and Philadelphia, where the public has been shut out of the democratic process, and you can see in those places just how bad this sort of disenfranchisement gets.

Apply the same argument to the army, and we would have soldiers trained and equipped by the taxpayers going back home and saying, “I am only going to protect my own house.”

Zero Sum

A choice advocate once told me that I should stop talking about this issue as if it were a zero sum game. But it is a zero sum game. The tax dollars involved are finite. Money taken for one school must come from another school. And if we try to run two homes on a strict one-home budget, we are playing a zero-sum game that guarantees disappointment for some players.

There are many fine reasons to consider at least some aspects of a choice system. But we can’t have those conversations until and unless we drop the financial fantasies and are honest about the true cost. Feel free to start in the comments section here.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.