What Could a Voucher-Based System Do to Sachem?

It's never too early to think about how the School Choice movement will affect our public schools.

This post is based on a number of assumptions.  It's okay to challenge the assumptions, and I welcome it, but I ask that people reading this not lose sight of the big picture.  And the big picture is this: Our district could lose millions of dollars in public funding.  Not from the state, not from the Federal Government, but from our own tax base.

Let's do the math, shall we?

The Sachem school board informed me earlier this week that there are approximately 300 kids living in our district that currently go to private schools.  Now, under a voucher-based system like the ones championed by our new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, people electing to send their kids to private schools would be able to steer their contribution to the tax base toward the private school of their choice, and not to Sachem.

Vouchers rarely cover the total costs of private schools, and they may not represent the entirety of the private school-goer's contribution to the tax base.  But let's try to get a handle on the magnitude of the issue, shall we?

Sachem spends over $21,000 per pupil.  (Citation)  To make the math easy, and to be conservative with our assumption, let's call it $10,000 per pupil that could be steered away from the district.  300 kids X $10,000 per kid = $3,000,000.

That's right.  Just counting the kids whose parents pay incremental money above their tax contribution to send them to private schools, the district could lose millions.  That's before anyone who currently has kids in Sachem might decide to pull their kids out and send them to private school.

About that...  It's reasonable to assume that if parents can use $10,000 of tax money to defray the cost of private schools, they will elect to do so.  How many more kids will end up in private schools and how much more money could the district lose as a result?  Is it reasonable to assume another 300 kids might end up doing just that?  If so, then you're looking at $6 million.

This is no drop in the bucket.  Recall a couple years back when, due to a snafu in state law, Sachem missed out on a PILOT payment of around $1MM.  That contributed significantly to a panicked situation where programs were taken off the table.  This scenario has the potential to impact the schools a lot more significantly.

What if a voucher program took away significantly more than $10K per pupil?  What if it more closely mirrored the district's spending on a per pupil basis?  Double the amount and then some.  Now we're looking at a shortfall in funding that numbers in the tens of millions of dollars.

I don't wish to be alarmist, but it makes sense to start thinking about this now.  What choices could we make in the coming years that would help conserve cash?  Does it make sense to start looking at options to close more schools in the district, so we have a path toward coping with this situation, should it come to pass?

If you're reading this and thinking "It can't happen here," you might be right.  But you also might be wrong.  Here's a story from today's Newsday.  (Usual caveats about their paywall, along with the hope you're a Cablevision subscriber...)  While these charter schools might not be eroding public school tax revenue today, could that happen under a DeVos-led charge toward vouchers?  Perhaps so.

Again, this post is loaded with assumptions.  Lots can happen in the next few years.  In recent weeks, we've even seen Congress bring up the notion of abolishing the Department of Education entirely.  From an education standpoint, every day is Anything Can Happen Day.

But I'd feel really stupid if a voucher system snuck up on us and we weren't prepared for it.  Be thinking about what you're willing to sacrifice.