Funding public education: Taxpayer money works for students

Author: Ilana Dubin Spiegel - August 11, 2017 - Updated: August 11, 2017

Ilana Dubin Spiegel

Imagine for a moment that Colorado families could decide how and where their children are educated. Families are able to make choices between individual, local schools and education options and do so based on their individual values and preferences. Students could receive more innovative and effective teaching and learning that results in higher achievement. And the benefits could extend beyond an individual student and family to an entire community.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? As it turns out, we already have such a time-tested, research-based approach to how we think about education. It’s called public education. In the 19th century, when Colorado settlers became concerned that a private, market system for education created uneven, unreliable outcomes, they made sure to include provisions for a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools” (Colorado Constitution, Article IX, Section 2). Our Colorado ancestors saw the failure of simplistic thinking that producers would always respond to the needs of consumers when it came to educating children. They organized school districts, established by locally elected boards of education, who have control over instruction in the schools in their districts (Colorado Constitution, Article IX, Section 15.). They also protected the free exercise of religion, state and religion co-existing but along very different paths without government interference, regulation, taxation or control, in Article IX, Section 7, which prohibits taxpayer money from paying for a religious education. Public schools were created in part to address the failure of markets to address the educational needs of our children, our workforce and our democracy.

Resisting applications of simplistic, structural remedies from the private sector, such as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), is easy because they create less effective opportunities to learn. Public schools attain higher levels of achievement compared to like matched populations in other education settings. This finding is especially true in math, which is a better indicator for what has been taught than reading which is both directly and indirectly influenced by home experiences. In addition, public schools offer an academic advantage to students because they provide a more professional model of teaching and learning. That is, the true education innovators are found in public schools. In Colorado nearly 90% of families consider academic achievement, safety, extracurricular options, perceived pedagogical fit, a school that reinforces their values, one where friends attend or other families look like they do when considering education options. And they still choose public schools.

Regrettably, some advocacy groups continue to elevate an ideological strategy over actual evidence. For example, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, founded by economist Milton Friedman, continues to advocate for voucher-like policies that are rooted in discrimination. Friedman himself infamously claimed that the best way to stack schools by race was through the use of voucher type policies. His modern-day followers claim that vouchers’ close cousin, Education Savings Accounts, are the best route to providing equal educational opportunities for all student but they ignore the evidence. Data shows that private education options under enroll disadvantaged and minority students, and the ones they do enroll are no better served. Reports and surveys generated by astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity have been proven biased, challenged by respected researchers, and fail to pass through a rigorous peer review process.

Public schools do not have a monopoly on the problems that inhibit student growth. There is no question that student needs are great and resources are limited. According to Great Education Colorado and the Colorado School Finance Project, to truly level the playing field for all students Colorado needs:

  • An additional $2000 for a typical student in a typical district
  • An additional 25% for gifted and talented students
  • An additional 35% for at risk students (free and reduced price lunch)
  • An additional 47% for English Language Learners
  • An additional 114% for students with no special needs in small rural districts
  • An additional 140% for students with special needs in small rural districts
  • An additional 73-700% for students with disabilities depending on the severity of the disability

This reality drives the urgency that is empowering parents and educators to work together to secure the brightest possible future for ALL students while protecting and sustaining our communities.


Ilana Dubin Spiegel

Ilana Dubin Spiegel represents Taxpayers for Public Education, a Colorado-based, non-partisan, 501(c)(4) organization. Its members are Colorado taxpayers and parents of children enrolled in public schools.


  • Scott Weiser

    August 11, 2017 at 8:56 pm

    Spiegel writes “Data shows that private education options under enroll disadvantaged and minority students”

    As an argument against school vouchers this one is particularly disingenuous because it deliberately elides the reason that “private education options” create such conditions: Cost.

    Traditional private schools are funded by private money, not by public school funds. This is particularly true of private religious schools which, thanks to unconstitutional Blaine Amendments cannot receive public funds.

    Since disadvantaged and minority students are typically less able to pay for private schooling Spiegel’s statement would obviously be true.

    But the whole point of school vouchers is that with vouchers the money the state allocates for the education of each and every student in Colorado would follow the student, regardless of what school they choose to attend.

    That simply debunks Spiegel’s claim. Like all free-market solutions the availability of educational resources always follows the money. At the moment the money only goes to public schools, creating a monopoly in education for most kids. Like all government-supported monopolies (the only kind of monopoly there is in a free market economy) public schools have no profit motive and no reason to work harder than the next guy at pleasing its customers, so we get inferior education presented by unionized public employees (an economic idiocy all its own) whose vested interest lies with keeping union teachers employed no matter how ineffective or incompetent they are.

    Take the state money and dangle it in front of the free market and it will respond with better, cheaper education very quickly, and because disadvantaged and minority students get the same amount as everyone else, the services will chase their money just like it does any other student’s money.

    • Edward C. Krug, Ph.D.

      August 12, 2017 at 1:19 pm

      On the point of teacher unions, the original purpose of unions was to give workers leverage in negotiations with company owners. The profit motive of the free-market includes constant pressure to minimize worker’s pay. In America, education is one of the lowest paid professions with substantial entrance requirements. The battle between advocates for free-market and at-will employment and advocates for workers reasonable pay, security and working conditions forces each side to dig in their heels. The more intense the adversarial behavior, the less likely are compromises and improvements.

      This is what is called a “wicked problem” in the social and complexity sciences. It is an evolving problem with no simple fix, no end point, multiple external internal forces at play, and more. Look up wicked problems for an extended list of descriptors.

      As long as education professionals are treated as a low skill work force by society, union-like behavior will endure.

      I suggest focusing on students and raising the performance of teachers by raising the entrance requirements of teacher colleges, raising the training and apprenticeship requirements of new teachers, and giving them the pay and respect of a valued profession.

  • Scott Weiser

    August 11, 2017 at 9:02 pm

    Spiegel writes “In Colorado nearly 90% of families consider academic achievement, safety, extracurricular options, perceived pedagogical fit, a school that reinforces their values, one where friends attend or other families look like they do when considering education options. And they still choose public schools.”

    Well, that’s because they have to because the money they pay in taxes goes to public schools whether they want their kids to go there or not. That’s precisely the problem that vouchers seek to solve. Most people cannot afford to pay for a public school education through their taxes AND pay for private schools, where kids get demonstrably better results, so they “choose” public schools because they have no other real choice.

    Vouchers would remove this barrier to kids getting out of underperforming public schools caused by the teacher’s union’s iron grip on school funding thereby allowing parents to actually have freedom of choice about their children’s education, something that contrary to Spiegel’s claims, they do not have.

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