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Study shows savings with S.C. education tax credits

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I recently had the privilege of giving testimony in Columbia on the merits of an education tax credit bill being considered by state lawmakers.
I was honored to join parents, local educators and education officials from other states to discuss education tax credit policies across the country and what makes for successful choice reform.
At the hearing, I talked about the need to invest more efficiently and effectively in education rather than simply spending – and wasting – more taxpayer dollars. Education tax credits do this by empowering parents and taxpayers to invest more of their own money directly in education.
Molly Spearman, executive director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, a public school lobbying group, denounced both the bill and my testimony in its favor.
Unfortunately, SCASA and several other taxpayer-funded groups are working hard to spread disinformation about school choice. And whether you support choice or not, no one should accept their assault on facts and the public discourse.
Ms. Spearman and others claim that an education tax credit program like the one proposed in South Carolina “has no research-based support that it works.” She based this conclusion on the response of an employee of the Florida Department of [Public] Education to this question she asked over the phone: “To what do you attribute the improvement made by Florida’s students in reading over the past few years?”
No offense to the opinions of this unknown government employee, but there is an official, scientific government study of the program, conducted by academic researcher David Figlio at Northwestern University.
Figlio found the credit program significantly improved the academic achievement of public school students. That’s not surprising, since it’s consistent with the 17 other studies that find private school choice programs improve public school performance.
Ms. Spearman also dismisses the state savings expected from the program, based on a shocking misunderstanding of education funding. State savings are based on the amount of the credit and the amount of state funding that changes when a student leaves public school. The state will save money because the size of the tax credit is less than the natural reduction in the state’s financial obligation to the school district. That reduction already occurs any time a child leaves a public school, whatever the reason.
The school districts will save much more – about $5,500 in additional funds for every student who leaves, even after subtracting fixed costs. Ms. Spearman acts as if almost no money is saved when a student leaves. But why do public schools demand full funding for each additional new student? It works both ways: if one fewer student saved little money, then one more would add little cost.
Again, this is no surprise; an official government analysis found Florida’s credit saved about $1.50 for every dollar in credits. Numerous studies demonstrate large actual and potential savings from private choice programs.
Dishonesty in public discourse hurts all of us. And Ms. Spearman’s behavior is even more concerning because she is a former schoolteacher and now leads the S.C. Association of School Administrators.
South Carolina’s children and taxpayers deserve far better from their so-called “leaders” in public education.

Adam Schaffer is an education policy analyst with the Cato Institute.