The Cost of Choice

Public education in this country is struggling as is health care. But from a historical perspective, they are headed in opposite directions. Our state mandated public schools in our constitution.

ARTICLE IX SECTION 1.LEGISLATURE TO ESTABLISH SYSTEM OF FREE SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.

Most elementary education in our country has been funded with tax dollars. Until the 1950’s most health care was private pay, then the work-based health insurance benefit took hold, then Medicare and Medicaid happened in the 1960’s and now health care is >50% government funded. But I wonder if the principles are the same.

In health care economics I was taught that you could look at three competing aspects to the system: Access, Cost, and Quality. Better quality will cost more. If we increase access (or choice, an aspect of access) then cost goes up. If we lower cost, both access and quality will suffer. You can’t have it all, low cost, high quality and unlimited access.

Charter schools increase choice for parents and students. In principle, I support this. Our town has excellent charter schools that are thriving and popular.  You need to understand that charter schools are publicly funded. They get tax dollars from the district where they are based. But funding this choice is a problem. Let me explain. We recently passed a bill to remove the cap on charter schools in the state. By removing the cap our state will be eligible for more federal education grants. We can only have 6 new charter schools per year in the state and only 1 per district. The sponsor passed out a handout to show that the costs of charter schools were comparable to regular schools. I immediately went to my town:

Moscow School District   $4300  Elementary State Revenues per Average Daily Attendance(what the state pays to the district for an elementary kid to be taught each year.)

Charter A                             $5600

Charter B                             $6300

So the larger Moscow District School gets paid less per student then the smaller charter schools. I can understand this. There are economies of scale. The most expensive school in the state( a rural public school) gets $19k/ student, but they only have six kids.

Remember, the money for the two charter schools in Moscow comes from the Moscow School District budget. Each kid that moves from the main school to the charter takes with her more than she was getting to cover her costs in the district. So the money shifts from the district to the charters. We have more choice and it costs more overall.

And we haven’t even covered the cost of facilities. Charter schools can’t run a bond election to build a school but the district schools do. And the district will have to keep the heat on and fix the roof even if the classrooms are only half full. I believe this school choice route is going to cost us all more. And here we are embracing choice in a time when we are restricting budgets. I think we need to be honest with ourselves about this.  We sure haven’t had an honest discussion about what we want in healthcare. Honest discussions are tough.

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About ddxdx

A Family physician in the Idaho State Senate
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