San Antonio Schools Are Broke. They Should Stop Digging

It only takes a modicum of business sense to know that if you’re badly in debt and revenue is falling, it’s probably not a good time to give your employees a raise, but that is exactly what the San Antonio Independent School District wants to do. The school district is mired in more than $1 billion dollars in debt and student enrollment is in decline, yet SAISD wants to raise its minimum wage.

Not surprisingly, progressive activists and unions such as the Communities Organized for Public Service and the Metro Alliance and the Southwest Workers Union represent the the bulk of support behind the push to raise the minimum wage, prompting SAISD Board President Patti Radle to appeal to solidarity with overwrought phrases like “we are all in this together.”

Radle’s concern for her community is commendable, of course, but raising the minimum wage does not help the children she is responsible for educating – it does just the opposite.

The problem with minimum wage hikes, even when implemented within a limited sphere of, say, government-sector jobs, is that they always come with unforeseen consequences. When President Obama hiked the minimum wage for federal contractors up to $10.10 an hour, for example, many minimum and subminimum wage disabled workers lost their jobs – jobs that gave them purpose in life and that they could be proud of.

Texas Public Policy Foundation researchers Vance Ginn and James Quintero have reinforced this point. “Research shows that a minimum wage most hurts those it’s intended to help, particularly the young, low-skilled and less-educated, as they have fewer job opportunities,” they wrote. “For those interested in the livelihood of the poor and income inequality, the minimum wage fails to deliver a brighter future.”

San Antonio schools are sinking into a slow but steady downward spiral. The school district’s debt has grown by $365 million (an average of $20,250 per student) since 2010. It claims half of all property taxes levied in the area, and student enrollment has dropped nearly 5 percent since 2004. If the goal is to help San Antonio’s poor and disadvantaged citizens and provide them with a path to a better life, the minimum wage hike is targeting the wrong people for a problem that is deeper and structural. SAISD has not announced how much more the wage increase would cost taxpayers, but said it would raise the wages of less than 1,000 of its 3,500 full-time employees. Combined with part-time employees, this would make about 2,000 workers more expensive to employ. At this rate of spending, San Antonio’s schools cannot afford to keep educating their children without an inevitable tax increase, which will in turn lead to an even greater decline in enrollment as families move to more affordable cities.

Instead of making its operating costs even more expensive, SAISD should aim to give taxpayers and parents a greater bang for their buck and preserve a fiscally solvent school system for the next generation. One proven way to do this is through school choice programs. Studies have consistently found that school choice programs save taxpayer money. Research by Jeff Spalding, Director of Fiscal Policy at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, for example, audited 10 different voucher programs across the country found that all of them reduced expenditures, saving states an estimated $1.7 billion over two decades. Another 2007 study by Susan Aud took a thorough look at the effects of school choice and found that every school choice program (other than those designed to be revenue-neutral) saved taxpayers at least $1 million.

Help could be on the way next year in the form of an expansive, statewide school choice program. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he wants to make school choice a top priority in 2017. Last year Patrick pushed for a voucher program that would have incentivized businesses to donate money for scholarships to private or parochial schools, but it was killed in the statehouse. It was killed in the statehouse, but political will is growing. San Antonio is just one of many financially troubled school districts in Texas, and cost-saving school choice reforms represent the most promising path to sound financial footing and a quality education for every child in Texas.

In the meantime, however, San Antonio schools should do what is best for parents and children – and that means not digging itself into a hopeless financial hole.