SB 1647 Failed, but the Case for School Choice Is Stronger than Ever
The bill would have created the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program. It would have allowed parents to redirect a portion of their state education dollars (at least $3500 per child) to pay for a range of education services, including private school tuition. If parents continued to send their child to public school, the money would have helped fund the public school system. Either way, the money would have followed the child.
Misperceptions surround the issue of school choice. The following Question and Answer seeks to clear up some of the confusion, and provide school choice proponents ammunition to continue their fight in future legislative sessions.
Why Did SB1647 Fail?
A few reasons. Several rural Republican legislators voted against it. They feared a decrease in total school funding for their area and a lack of viable options to the local public school. Public school advocates said the bill would have: a) subsidized tuition for kids who can already afford private school, b) enabled non-public school recipients to largely escape accountability for poor performance or misuse of funds, and c) most importantly, destroyed the local public school. Some home school groups also objected, fearing regulatory strings attached if they accepted state funding.
Would Rural Schools Be Hurt?
As with any public school, they’d only lose students if they were doing a poor job. Then, parents would seek alternatives. Senator Treat said several rural churches already contacted him, saying SB1647 would make a private school viable in their communities. Even Senator Mary Boren ( D- Norman) predicted new schools would appear “all over the state” if the bill became law.
What about Larger Public Schools? Would They Suffer?
Same answer. They’d lose students only if parents had better available options to educate their children. However, if you like your public school, you can keep your child in that same public school. Since the money would follow the child in most school choice legislation, the school chosen by that family would receive that allocation.
However, the public school that lost that child actually gains in per pupil funding. Oklahoma allocates about $12,000 per pupil. If a school loses a student and the $3500 (as in SB1647) that follows the student out the door, they still get to keep the remaining $8500, even though they no longer have the cost of educating that individual.
Think of it the same way as if you’re deciding where to grocery shop. If you have $120 and shop at Target, but now choose Walmart, does Target still deserve any of your $120? What if they still get $35 of your money and you don’t buy any groceries from there? Wouldn’t they prefer that arrangement?
There are larger questions at work here. First of all, whose money is it anyway? Is it the education bureaucracy’s or that of the hardworking taxpayers, who are forced to relinquish it to the local, state or federal government? Shouldn’t the latter have more say in how to best educate their child? Or should they be forced to turn over responsibility of perhaps their most important function to a one-size-fits-all, often unaccountable monopoly?
What also gets lost in the debate is this question: What are we trying to accomplish with the approximately $3,000,000,000 (three billion dollars) that the state of Oklahoma spends for its public schools? It should be to properly educate each and every one of its 700,000 K-12 students in a manner that will make them successful, independent adults. It should be a process that helps create motivated, self-directed, lifelong learners out of its student populations. It should allow for adaptation to the particular needs, interests and abilities of each child. If a child has particular disabilities, is bullied or has unique academic abilities, a free market in education could meet any of those demands. A system tailored around sustaining the current brick and mortar, top-down status quo where increased funding is inversely related to success will only result in a youth population unprepared academically, socially or emotionally to succeed in today’s environment.
Unrestricted school choice creates accountability because the free market creates accountability. If there’s open competition for students between public, charter, private, parochial, or even home schools, they’re all forced to improve their product or lose their customer base. As well, a free market in education closes the education gap between rich and poor, enabling families in the worst school districts the opportunity to send their child to a potentially life-changing, better-performing school.
Aren’t Public Schools Performing Well? Why Change the Status Quo?
They’re not, by almost any metric. Statewide, Oklahoma ranks anywhere from 42nd to 49th in Pre-K to 12 educational attainment, depending on the source and criteria used. In Oklahoma City, 90% of K-12 students performed below grade level in all subjects, and 67% were more than one year behind. In Tulsa, the numbers were 89% and 64%. Even in Edmond, 60% scored below grade level in English, and 62% in math. Jenks was worse: 66% had below grade level scores in all subjects.
National test scores have dropped as well. Math and reading performance for fourth and eighth graders showed significant decline in 2019, following a decade of stagnation. Thirty countries now outperform the United States in math at the high school level. Sadly, the U.S. now has the worst-educated workforce in the industrialized world. All this in a country where 90% or about 50 million students attend public school.
In contrast, fully 28 of 30 high-quality studies done in recent years show increased parental satisfaction with school choice. The satisfaction didn’t always mean transferring to a private school. Some chose a charter school, or even another public school. Charter schools, in fact, have won wide respect by sending their graduates through college at higher rates than traditional public schools.
Declining test scores, extended Covid-related school closures, drugs, bullying, and curriculum that contrasts with parental values (e.g. CRT training, early Sex Ed) have contributed to increased support for greater educational freedom. The vast majority, 72% of parents, now support some form of school choice, with the greatest percentage increase seen among Democrats and minorities. In the past eighteen months, 34 states have introduced some form of school choice legislation, where funding would follow the student, not the system.
Public school teachers would benefit too. According to author and education scholar Corey DeAngelis, at least five studies show public school teachers receive higher salaries as a result of competition for their services when public schools have to compete with charter and private schools for their services.
What must Be Done
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 21% of U.S.adults, – about 43 million people – are functionally illiterate. Expanded school choice, both here and in other states, would reduce that number. The chance to escape low-performing school districts could reverse multi-generational high unemployment and incarceration rates that plague many less privileged families. No wonder it’s been coined the “civil rights issue of our time,” by numerous proponents and political leaders.
For greater school choice to become a reality in Oklahoma, the following should be considered:
a) Recalcitrant Republican legislators must be further educated or primaried.
b) Use enhanced education tax credits and not vouchers as the funding mechanism, as they are less subject to regulatory oversight and are more politically palatable to some groups.
c) Frame the issue as one of basic educational freedom for all as opposed to calling it the more divisive term of school choice. That labeling strategy helped elect Republican Glenn Youngkin in blue-state Virginia. If it worked there, surely it can work in red-state Oklahoma.
Tim Bakamjian is an independent real estate broker and investor living in Tulsa. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Kenyon College in Ohio and a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Tulsa. He’s married with one grown child. Political and economic issues have been a life-long interest. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org