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School voucher program could help fix California's crippling budget deficit

by Wes Messamore, published

What if California could fix its enormous budget deficit with a single policy change that would potentially cut billions out of the state budget without sacrificing the quality of services that Californians receive?

What if five years from now, without any reductions in the quality of health, housing, education, law enforcement, human services, or transportation- California was actually running a budget surplus?

As the Legislature misses yet another Constitutionally-mandated spending deadline today, the Los Angeles Times reports that both gubernatorial candidates have little more than criticism to offer:

"But neither gubernatorial nominee has stepped forward with anything that resembles a roadmap to closing the state's $19.1-billion deficit. No strategy for bringing the state into the black nor a detailed plan of what social programs need to be dismantled, parks need to be closed or school programs need to be eliminated has come out of either campaign."

Meanwhile, Democratic political analyst Darry Sragow opines:

"The budget is a lose-lose for the candidates. Nobody wins. The discussion is, 'Do you want to lose your left arm or your right arm?' It is not a discussion you want to have with the patient when you are trying to get them to hire you."

But it doesn't have to be that way. California's voters do not have to lose their metaphorical right or left arm to solve the budget crisis.

There is a potentially simple and relatively pain-free policy solution out there- one that will actually improve what residents get out of their state, instead of requiring them to lose out on something.  That potential solution is a statewide educational voucher program.

In a report by the Federal government, which was kept quiet until Democrats in Congress had a chance to sunset funding for D.C.'s innovative private school voucher program, a Federal study concluded that the private school voucher program in D.C. had delivered better results (students pulled ahead of their non-voucher peers in reading, while performing as well in math) at one quarter of the cost!

Average tuition at private voucher schools was $6,620, just under 25% of the $26,555 that the District of Columbia spends on education per pupil. Think of what this could mean for California. Education could actually improve and only cost 25% as much as it does presently.

As the number one item on California's budget, clocking in at $36.8 billion (or 31% of the budget), K-12 education reform is the most important part of fixing the budget deficit.

Guess what 75% of $36.8 billion is? $27.6 billion- enough savings to wipe out the $19 billion deficit the LA Times quotes above, enough savings to actually create a budget surplus. Imagine that- a budget surplus in California!

And instead of agonizing over which educational or human services program to cut, we can end up with a better quality education for California's K-12 students.

Now let's be fair. California is not the District of Columbia. Its educational costs and needs are likely going to be different.

But even if we make some very conservative assumptions, and assume that a statewide voucher program would only be half as cost-effective as the one in D.C. -it would still cut $18.4 billion from California's budget- almost annihilating the deficit, leaving a very manageable $700 million left to clean up.

Even assuming a statewide voucher program in California was only a quarter as effective as the District of Columbia's, practically a dismal failure by the standards of success achieved in the D.C. voucher program, it would still cut California's budget deficit in half in one fell swoop.

This could be a critical solution to California's budget crisis.

Neither party's candidate, nor the sitting governor, nor the legislature has seriously considered any solution that would so drastically reduce the deficit, and without any overly adverse consequences for California residents.

Without raising taxes, without entirely inadequate (but still painful) cuts here and there, and without complicated borrowing schemes that only obscure and put off the problem- creating a statewide voucher program could significantly slash, wipe out, or even reverse California's budget woes.

And it doesn't hurt that it would also make the best possible K-12 education universally available to all of California's students.

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