Vouchers could save Texas $2 billion

Associated Press

AUSTIN — Texas public schools could save up to $2 billion annually if the state allows families to use public funding on private schooling, a school vouchers advocate testified Tuesday at the ongoing school finance trial.

Joseph Bast, president of the conservative, Chicago-based think tank the Heartland Institute, acknowledged however that no Texas government entity agreed with his cost-savings analysis and said that some experts estimate such a program actually costs public schools money in the short term.

He co-authored a report on a taxpayer savings grant proposal with John Merrifield, an economics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Bast said the taxpayer savings grant proposal is similar to a voucher program and that key beneficiaries of such initiatives would be “primarily low-income families.”

“If you’re low income, you’re pretty much trapped in the public school that’s in your direct area,” Bast said, adding that teachers would benefit from increased competition for their services.

More than 600 school districts across Texas have sued the state, claiming that $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and grant programs imposed by the Legislature in 2011 have made funding for schools so inadequate and inequitable that it violates the Texas Constitution.

The trial began in October before state District Judge John Dietz. The court is now hearing testimony from experts called by a group known as Texans for Real Efficiency and Equality in Education. Rather than argue that schools are underfunded, the group says pouring more money into public education may not improve classroom learning if the overall system is inefficient and otherwise flawed.

Bast estimated that approximately 6 percent of Texas public school students would move into private schools if a tax grant program offering families private school vouchers were available. He said the state saves $7,750 when a student leaves the system.

That led him to the assertion that schools could save as much as $2 billion per year under such a program.

On cross examination, Bast acknowledged he has not graduated from college and holds no degrees in economics, although he considers himself an economist. He also said the report he co-authored wasn’t peer reviewed.

Bast agreed that Texas’ nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board concluded that a taxpayer savings grant proposal would likely cost the state money in its first two years of operation. He acknowledged no other Texas state institution concurs with his cost-saving estimates.

Robyn Wolters, director of human resources and professional staffing for Irving Independent School District in suburban Dallas, testified later about how onerous Texas rules governing teacher contracts can be.

She said the regulations were especially strict when school districts don’t want to renew the contracts of, or otherwise dismiss, underperforming teachers.

Wolters said coping with employment regulations were very time consuming and expensive and that they pull school principals away from their regular duties in order to compile all the necessary documentation.

They also often involve attorney fees, and there’s a 90-day period when individuals that the district wants to terminate are typically on paid administrative leave, she said.

Wolters said costs can sometimes play a part in the decision to pursue termination or non-renewal. She said district staff members sometimes have to weigh the cost of continuing with the process against the harm of having the employee return for another year.

On cross examination, however, Wolters agreed that due process rights are important and that all employees should be entitled to an appeal process.

Asked whether all of the Irving district’s financial woes would be eliminated if rules regarding teacher contracts and dismals were eliminated, Wolters said they would not.