January 26, 2021
By Matt Beienburg

They say a rising tide lifts all boats. And when it comes to K-12 and parental choice, it makes sense to have more boats, too. As millions of families scrambled to adjust to at-home learning during the pandemic, interest has surged in “education pods” and other public and private choice options like education savings accounts. Yet stalwarts of the establishment have warned that a diversity of options for kids will defund and decimate public schools, even as the federal government just ploughed a new $50 billion into them as part of the latest COVID stimulus package.

But a new Goldwater Institute study reveals that private education may actually be helping to keep public school funding afloat: A robust landscape of private education is linked not to the financial hollowing of states’ public K-12 sectors, but rather to increased levels of public school per pupil funding.

The new report How Private Education Can Help Funding for Public School Students documents two decades’ worth of private school enrollment and public school funding levels to show that policymakers can advance both in tandem. In broad terms, the report finds that:

  • States with the highest share of students in private education also tend to have the highest investments in public schools on a per pupil basis. In other words, far from decimating public education, higher enrollment in private schools tends to align with having more resources available to serve public school students. Of course, this relationship does not in itself mean that private school enrollment levels are a driver of public school funding levels. The political and policy decisions of state lawmakers, coupled with the economic wealth, tax burdens, and a host of other factors unique to each state all help shape the level of funding directed to K-12 education. However, it offers stark evidence against the claim that an expansive private education sector is somehow incompatible with, or detrimental to, the ability of states to adequately fund public school students.
  • Predictions of the public school system’s collapse due to an increase in the number of students seeking private options stand at odds with observable data. Among those states with the lowest proportions of private school students (5% or less of the state’s public K-12 population), per pupil funding at public schools averaged $12,300 in the 2016-2017 school year. In comparison, states with 10-15% private enrollment averaged $15,900 in public school funding per pupil, while those with private school populations over 15% averaged $19,900 per public school pupil.
  • Public school enrollment growth—not private choice programs—appears to most severely restrict available K-12 funding per student among the states. While opponents of school choice have made private education a scapegoat for the perceived funding inadequacies of states’ K-12 systems, it has been the increases in states’ public school enrollment totals that have blunted public funding increases per student by spreading out available dollars across more kids.
  • Statewide decreases in public school enrollment have aligned with the sharpest increases in public school funding per student. Among states whose public school populations contracted between 2001 and 2015, total public school funding per student increased an average of 63%, the highest of any group in the country.
  • The more significantly a state’s public K-12 population grows, the more severely its K-12 spending increases are diluted. Among states whose public K-12 populations grew moderately (no more than 20%) between 2001 and 2015, public school funding increased 52%, while states whose enrollments increased most sharply (20% or more) saw per pupil funding increases of just 31% on average.

There is no doubt that schools across the country—public and private—are grappling with dramatic enrollment swings and budgetary pressures during the COVID-19 pandemic. But especially on the heels of the massive and unprecedented infusions of funding to aid schools in the short-term, policymakers must recognize that even public schools themselves, in the long term, are likely to enjoy greater per pupil funding if they agree to share the waters with private education and the millions of kids who’ve found a life raft through it.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute. He is the author of the new Goldwater Institute study How Private Education Can Help Funding for Public School Students.

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