Across the state, I meet people worried about their local schools.
Parents worry about dropout rates, job placement, and college admission. Employers worry about workforce qualification and training. Local officials worry about the costs of services required by those who’ve slipped through the cracks. Faith and community leaders worry about poverty and inequality.
As the state’s chief financial officer, I see a more eminent concern: unchecked, the traditional model of public education in South Carolina will bankrupt the state within our lifetime.
K-12 education now consumes a third of all state government spending and nearly two-thirds of local government spending. Taxpayers will provide South Carolina’s public schools with over $8 billion next year. The figure, taken from the state budget, only includes money for day-to-day operations. Spending on buildings, retirement, and other long-term obligations could bring the total closer to $10 billion.
The state will provide at least a third of that money, or roughly $4,900 per student for nearly 700,000 pupils. A report issued by the state’s economist last year predicts that $3.4 billion will double by 2024 if enrollment and funding trends are carried forward. Total state aid to districts would then exceed the size of the entire 2011 State General Fund. I cannot imagine a scenario in which we can afford that.
Despite the huge sums of money, I still hear stories of stagnated teacher salaries, teachers pleading for donations of classroom supplies, and even districts charging parents out-of-pocket fees.
Confusingly, there are also reports of massive school district reserve funds. One report calculates the on-hand total at more than $900 million in money sitting idle.
The basic problem is that we fund systems, not students.
That situation was explained well by Kevin Madden. He is an auditor with an accounting firm hired by the Abbeville County School District. In January, he spoke before the school board, detailing the district’s financial outlook. A worried board member asked about declining student enrollment throughout the county, which the district has experienced for about a decade. She wanted to know about the negative impact on the schools’ finances.
Madden explained that though the district loses some state money for every student who leaves, the amount of money saved on those students outweighs the loss. “A portion of your state revenue you did lose, no doubt. But if you lost $2,000 per kid, and it costs $10,000 per kid, you come out better.”
In other words, most money for K-12 education is not “tied” to the student, and traditional public schools are helped, not harmed, when students choose to leave. That’s why I’ve been such an outspoken supporter of school choice.
Not only would school choice save taxpayers money and reduce academic inequality, it would do so at no cost to the traditional public school districts. More importantly, it would mark the first step towards a model of student-based support of education in South Carolina.
I’ve spoken at length about the 15,000 low-income children already attending private schools in South Carolina.
Their parents, who scrimp and save to pay median tuition rates of $4,400 per year, provide the state with about $8.5 million a year in personal income taxes. If those 15,000 students were enrolled in public schools and were funded at the rate of existing public school students, it would cost state taxpayers more than $72 million.
But that’s not how the funding system works. More likely, public school classrooms would become more crowded and the per-pupil district budgets would drop, even as the total budgets rose.
That’s why any type of school choice legislation that supports parents choosing independent education will help the bottom line of South Carolina’s traditional public school districts.
Those who truly worry about our state’s schools — be it their financial inputs or their academic outcomes — ought to join me in supporting school choice.
Curtis Loftis, a Republican, is treasurer of South Carolina.