The Austin Independent School District, like many others in Texas and around the country, is facing a substantial budget shortfall because of problems in the economy and cuts in statewide education funding. In the case of the AISD this is being estimated at as much as $100 million, and although this is probably an overestimate intended to frighten voters, there is discussion of radical cuts including closing 6 schools, increasing class sizes and actually laying off administrators.
Yet in all of these desperate plans to cut the budget, one very effective option is being overlooked, educational vouchers.
Ordinarily the argument for school vouchers is that they will give underserved students access to a better education. But there is another argument in favor of them which is purely fiscal and ought to be considered by school districts which are short of funds. A voucher program can actually be used to increase the effective amount of money available to spend per student in the public school system by allowing some students to leave, but holding a portion of what would have been spent on them in reserve to underwrite the cost of educating the students who stay behind.
The AISD has 85,000 students and spends about $9100 per student. That's a total budget of more than $750 million. Cutting $100 million out of that is a substantial reduction, but one which could be largely offset by a voucher program. If students in an affluent community like Austin were offered $6000 vouchers it's likely that a significant portion of those enrolled — likely as many as 20% would consider attending private school with their families making up any additional cost. This would leave the school district with a net profit per student using a voucher of $3100.
Typical private schools in the Austin area charge around $8000 in tuition and while a few are much more expensive, many are less expensive, especially in the lower grades. $6000 towards that tuition would make it easy for middle class families to move their kids to private schools for a cost of at most $200 a month and likely less.
Admittedly the capacity for 17,000 or more new students does not exist in the current private school system in the Austin area, but the six schools which are being considered for shut-down — two of which are rated exemplary — could effectively be converted to private schools, even with the same teachers, staffs and buildings and handle much of that demand. Entrepreneurs would be eager to step in and take advantage of the opportunity and the school district would even make more money back from the rental of the facilities. Some of those schools could even operate very cost effectively as teacher-run cooperatives, a business model which can work very well in education and has low administrative overhead.