This week, the Parental Rights in Children’s Education (PRICE Act) received a public hearing in the Senate Education Policy Committee. After hearing from both proponents and opponents of the bill, no vote was held, and the legislation was recommitted to the Senate’s education budget committee.

PRICE Act sponsor State Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Tuscumbia) referred to the move as a “stalling tactic.” But while the bill has temporarily slowed down, the issue is not going away. Recent polling by the Alabama Republican Party finds that 78% of registered voters (not including undecided) support school choice legislation.

Opponents of the bill commonly argue that it will take too much funding away from the state’s Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget. The data does not support that conclusion.

Consider recent spending and revenue trends in the ETF budget.

In 2018, total ETF revenues were just over $6.7 billion. In 2022, they rose to almost $10.5 billion, a 54.3% increase in five years. On the spending side, the ETF budget increased by more than $2.5 billion in the past five years, nearly a 40% increase in spending. Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed $2.8 billion in supplemental ETF spending this year, meaning that total ETF spending could rise to more than $11 billion before the end of 2023. 

Despite record spending, little progress has been made in terms of educational outcomes for students. Alabama’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have shown little to no improvement, declining in some cases over the last 25 years.

The Legislative Services Agency (LSA) projects that, even after spending an additional $2.8 billion this year, the ETF would have $2.3 billion in surplus funds entering 2024. Putting more money into the same failing system has not netted better results.

In terms of potential costs of the PRICE Act, the estimate provided by the LSA raises legitimate questions. LSA estimates that once fully implemented, the education savings accounts (ESA) created by the school choice program would cost the state $576.1 million per year, less than 6.5% of total 2022 ETF spending. In arriving at that estimate, LSA assumed that 5% of public school students and all the state’s estimated 61,000 nonpublic students would apply for an ESA account.

While it is impossible to predict the total number of students who will take advantage of the ESA program, the percentage of eligible, enrolled students in the 31 states that already have school choice programs is much lower.

According to data from EdChoice, the average take-up rate between 1990 and 2021 for all educational choice programs nationwide was 1.12% in year three. During the public hearing, Christian Barnard of the Reason Foundation told lawmakers that once fully implemented the ESA program would cost an estimated $408 million annually. That’s less than 4% of the total projected 2023 ETF appropriation. Both data points are significantly lower than the LSA estimates. Barnard estimates that 75% of eligible nonpublic school students would participate.

There’s empirical evidence that school choice programs save taxpayers money as well as improve academic outcomes for students. A 2016 paper published by EdChoice identified 28 studies on the fiscal impacts on taxpayers and public schools from choice programs. The research shows that in 25 cases the programs saved money, while in the other three studies, the programs were revenue neutral. None of the studies found that school choice increased the costs of education.

The paper also examined 18 studies that looked at academic outcomes for school choice participants. Fourteen found that school choice programs improved outcomes for students. Just two of the 18 studies were found to have a negative impact on educational outcomes.

Alabamians strongly support expanded school choice options. Many lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, do as well. If the legislature continues to delay school choice legislation, it’s not because it is too costly or because the program would not improve the quality of education in Alabama’s schools. Spending more money year after year without making fundamental changes to the state’s educational framework is not the solution. It’s time to try a different approach.

Justin Bogie serves as Fiscal and Budget Reporter for 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to: [email protected].

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