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Savings From Vouchers Debated in Texas School Finance Trial

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A lawsuit is underway in Texas, in which 600 school districts are suing the state, claiming that $5.4 billion in cuts to education by the state legislature in 2011 have created an inadequate, inequitable, and unconstitutional school-funding system. The focus of the ongoing trial has shifted recently from claims that the schools are underfunded to arguments about how to use school funding efficiently, according to this article from the Associated Press. And that shift has given school choice advocates a platform to argue that vouchers could help save the state money.

The trial began in October and is being overseen by state Judge John Dietz. The court is now hearing testimony from a conservative group called Texans for Real Efficiency and Equality in Education, who are calling for more charter schools and voucher programs, arguing that those policies will spur competition and efficiency in public education. Currently, Texas has 490 charter schools operating in the state, according to The Center for Education Reform. The state does not have a voucher program.

As part of the group's testimony, John Bast, the president of the conservative, Chicago-based think tank the Heartland Institute, pointed to a report that he wrote with John Merrifield, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which argued that a taxpayer savings grant proposal that would give families public money to send their children to private schools could save the state up to $2 billion annually. The report estimates that six percent of Texas public school students would transition to private schools if vouchers were available, saving the state—through the report's estimation—$7,750 per student.

However, during cross examination, Bast acknowledged that no Texas government entity agreed with the report's findings and in fact, according to a fiscal note prepared by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board in Texas, the voucher program would likely cost the state almost $200 million during its first two years of operation. Bast also conceded that the Heartland Institute's report has not been peer-reviewed, the process through which academic scholars vet each others' work.

Texas is no stranger to school funding lawsuits, this being its sixth since 1984, according to the Washington Post. Texas is among 10 states that are currently embroiled in school-finance court battles, the article said.

The cost of private school voucher programs, like many aspects of private school choice, is a source of controversy. For instance, backers of vouchers have claimed that one variation of those programs, known as tax-credit scholarships, drive down state costs as students leave public schools for private ones—even as the state loses money by awarding tax credits. Others say those calculations are based on faulty assumptions, as we explained in a recent story.

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