Don’t blame school choice for your inability to pay teachers more

A recent Tampa Bay Times article insinuated that charter schools and private school scholarships were reducing Hillsborough County Public Schools’ ability to raise teacher pay.

According to the district, it stands to lose $319 million in funding to students who attend charter schools, while $132 million will follow students using the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES).

These dollar amounts create the impression of fiscal hardship for the school district. Combined, they add up to four times what is needed to bump Hillsborough County teacher pay by as much as $12,000 a year for the most veteran teachers.

There’s just one problem: If these programs ended, the district might enroll all the students and recapture the public funding that comes with them, but it would have to pay for all the costs that come with them too.

If the district can’t provide pay raises with the existing student population and their associated costs, why does it think it can create pay raises with more students who have the same associated costs?

The state pays the full cost of the Empowerment Scholarship program so districts are not burdened by the scholarship.

If the scholarship ended tomorrow, Hillsborough would inherit the full cost of educating those students, but with only a portion of the $132 million in state funding that went to the scholarships.

The district would likely need to raise additional local revenue to support these students. And under Florida’s strict constitutional class-size limits, it would have to hire more teachers and pay their salaries with money that might otherwise go to pay increases.

The district might also find itself in a deeper financial hole since scholarships are only based on funding from the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) and do not include other sources of public-school funding, such as money for building upgrades, which districts raise through local taxes, that will be needed to enroll the additional students.

Blaming a lack of money for pay raises on the growth of charter schools and scholarship programs may be good politics for district leaders at odds with unions, since it can unite both sides of the bargaining table against a common foe. But scapegoating school choice programs as the villain of a story about teacher pay raises would amount to a complete work of fiction.

Charter schools and scholarship programs draw students and funding that might otherwise go to the district. But they also reduce its costs. Any fair-minded effort to highlight big-sounding numbers to show their cost should account for the other side of the ledger.

Avatar photo

BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.