School Choice Saves Children from Failing Schools and Taxpayer Money

Chairman Piccola, and members of the Committee, thank you for the invitation to testify today. I’m Matt Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives. But I am also here as a former high school teacher, coach, school board member, and on the board of the Joshua Group which, as you’ll hear later, works with at-risk kids in the City of Harrisburg.  In addition, I’m a taxpayer and the father of four children, all of whom are home-schooled by my wife.

I’m fortunate to live in a community of highly reputable schools.  They are relatively safe and well-maintained, and the kids tend to perform reasonably well on state achievement tests. But after much consideration, my wife and I decided that homeschooling was the best option for our children. If for some reason, we were ever to decide to send our children to our local public school, or to a private school, I am sure they would receive a fine education. That’s one of the privileges of relative affluence – we know that our kids will get the best education possible, wherever we decide to send them to school.

So, I can’t imagine what it must be like, as a parent, to have no other option available to you than a substandard public school that a distant bureaucrat has chosen for your child based on nothing else but his or her home address.  I suspect that most of the people in this building can’t imagine what that must be like, but we need look no further than just outside these doors to get an idea.

Everyone who drove through Harrisburg today to get to this hearing saw firsthand the results of an expensive yet underperforming public school system. Last school year, per student spending in Harrisburg topped $16,000. That’s more than a year’s tuition at Penn State, and significantly more than the average per student spending in the rest of the commonwealth.  

This would not be so outrageous if these exorbitant sums were producing kids who are prepared to face the world when they graduate.  But instead what we find is that the longer students stay in Pennsylvania’s public schools, the worse they perform on achievement tests.  Here in Harrisburg last year, over 60% of 11th graders tested “not proficient” in reading skills. Presumably most of those kids were promoted anyway, and will be handed diplomas next June that they will have trouble reading. And those are the ones who we were lucky enough to retain, as more and more at-risk kids drop out of our public schools year after year.

To be honest, I can’t say I blame them. For too many of these kids, simply going to school each day and walking the halls is an act of physical bravery. For many of them, it is literally safer on the streets than it is in a classroom.  That’s a hard reality, and one we owe it to our kids to fix. There is no excuse for a child to have to sacrifice getting an education in order to feel safe.

A common perception about school choice is that it’s nothing more than a pet project of wealthy, mostly white, conservatives who want to dismantle public education.  The reality is something very different.  School choice programs disproportionately serve low-income and minority students.  That’s as it should be.  Wealthy parents have always enjoyed school choice. They write hefty checks to elite private schools, or they purchase a big house in the suburbs, leaving their lower and middle-class counterparts to founder in failing public schools, with no other place to go and no means to get there even if there WERE someplace to go.  Charter schools provide an answer for these students.  Studies have shown that kids in charter schools score nearly as well on achievement tests as students in affluent suburbs.  But most importantly, they are a lifeline out of poor performing public schools-at least for those fortunate enough to get into one and not stuck on a waiting list.

Charter schools have been a first step to leveling the academic playing field. They allow parents of modest means to make the same decisions you or I take for granted. But they are not enough.  We must give parents even more choices.  And we must bring some much-needed and long overdue competition to a public education monopoly that has grown very fat and very lazy after decades of massive increases in funding that they have never been made to justify.

But the good news about school choice is that it not only saves children from unsafe and failing schools, but it saves taxpayers’ money.  Charter schools, cyber schools and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit cost taxpayers less than traditional public schools: Charter schools cost $1,500 per pupil less, $4,000 less in cyber charter schools, and $12,000 less for the average EITC scholarship.  Then when you add in the hundreds of thousands of children in nonpublic schools, the savings to the taxpayer are even greater.  As the chart in my testimony demonstrates, school choice is saving the taxpayers over $3.6 Billion per year.

Total Taxpayer Saving from Students Attending Alternative Schools
 2007-08 School Year
  Savings Per Student Number of Students Total savings
Private and Nonpublic $12,139 260,285 $3,159,599,615
  EITC Students $11,457 44,000 $504,108,000
Home School $13,331 22,316 $297,494,596
Public Charter $2,589 67,275 $174,174,975
  Public Cyber $4,775 19,715 $94,139,125
Total   349,876 $3,631,269,186

With the Commonwealth facing a massive budget deficit, and with the achievement gap growing ever wider, conditions are ripe for education solutions that are both cost efficient AND more effective.

It is time we abandon the wrongheaded notion that what we value, we fund, and replace it with what we value, we FIX.  The teachers unions and I don’t agree on much, but we do agree on this: there are few things as important to the future of this country than how we educate our children.  It is time that we create a true system of educational equality here in Pennsylvania, so that all of our kids have the same access to a safe, quality education as your kids and mine.

Thank you, I am happy to take any questions.