A conservative's dilemma: school choice versus fiscal responsibility

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a prospective 2012 GOP
presidential candidate, challenged Republicans to take a critical look at the
defense budget earlier this month when he told a reporter in Iowa, “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 those considering a run for
president, don’t usually 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

Like with defense, most conservative Republicans have been
staunch supporters of school choice and its expansion. For this reason,
observers in Ohio expected Governor John Kasich to support an expansion of both
charter schools and private school vouchers. The governor’s budget indeed
offers up a healthy portion of school choice that includes lifting caps on
charter schools and expanding the number of vouchers available to children in
failing public schools through the state’s EdChoice scholarship program. Such
moves will expand choice, but not at a dramatic clip and not to many
middle-class families or districts beyond the state’s urban centers. Ohio’s
choice programs will continue mostly serving kids in failing schools and
long-troubled districts.


 More and more, voters and politicians alike are asking what can we afford and where should we cut?


This could change, however, if either House Bill
or Senate
Bill 128
, companion bills currently being debated in the General Assembly,
becomes law. These bills would create the Parental Choice and Taxpayer Savings
Scholarship Program, which would award private school scholarships worth $4,626
to students from families with annual household incomes of up to one-and-a-half
times the federal reduced-price lunch eligibility level (up to about
$61,000,based on current standards). Students from families with household
incomes up to two-and-a-half times the reduced-price lunch eligibility level
(just over $100,000 this year) would be eligible for scholarships ranging from
$2,313 and $4,626, awarded on a sliding scale based on actual income.

There is no geographic restriction on these scholarships (as
currently applies to charter schools) or requirement that the students come
from a failing public school (as is the case with the EdChoice program). As
about 80 percent of Ohio’s households have family incomes of less than $100,000
this program has the potential to launch a significant expansion of school
choice over the next decade.

Further, by the 2012-2013 school year HB136/SB128 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, and many of
these children and their families would be eligible for some amount of
assistance for tuition. The program would expand school choice in Ohio for
middle-class parents with children in private schools, and as such it would ultimately
create new costs for taxpayers.

The out-year cost of such an expansion in school choice
raises concerns about the state’s ability to fund it. Ohio’s next biennial
budget is already plagued by a nearly $8 billion deficit and few expect a rapid
recovery in the state’s coffers. Public education is going to operate with at
least a couple billion dollars less over the next two years, and no programs
are immune from cuts.

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 essentially is aimed at
middle-class families and has an almost unlimited potential for growth? Just as
some national Republicans are starting to question about how much defense
spending the nation can afford, it is time for school reformers to ask tough
questions about how much school choice we can afford. What’s more important for
conservatives – more school choice or making our ends meet? How should the pain
be shared?

Tell us what you think!
This article originally appeared on our blog,
Flypaper, and generated a lot of thoughtful comments
from readers. You can view the article on
Flypaper here to join the conversation and leave a comment of your own.