Last week, the Oklahoma House Republicans dropped their education package. In entails very modest teacher raises, one of the weirdest voucher schemes we've seen and little tweaks to a bunch of other public school initiatives that don't amount to much in the scheme of things.
Here we're going to focus on vouchers. They have the potential to be the biggest line item in the package, but we need to deliver some facts. Vouchers are a total policy failure that won't create much meaningful change except to give some rich families and a few middle class ones the illusion of school choice and some money off of their tuition. Even the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, one of the primary voucher pushers, admits they are ineffective for 99.9% of families.
Vouchers are a public policy failure. They do not work for the following reasons: 1) They do not change the underlying economic realities of our education system or change behavior of families in any meaningful amount. 2) They are limited by the existing capacity of the private education system. 3) They fund parochial (religious) and other discriminatory and unaccountable education institutions that in their quest for solvency or profits, will exacerbate issues we already see in the existing public education system. 4) Ultimately, their greatest "success" will be providing higher income families with money they very likely do not need thus reducing their overall tax burden and increasing economic inequality.
The Economic Realities
Schools in Oklahoma are underfunded and our system reflects that. Low teacher pay, reduced services, poor performance and tight budgets plague the public school system. Vouchers will not change that. For the same reasons shrinking rural schools find themselves insolvent, voucher-driven private schools will face the same problems. These problems are only compounded by receiving a partial percentage of the per pupil funding, no school bond money, and less federal support than traditional schools. Good luck competing with a public school that is getting 50% more government dollars per pupil, unless of course you are one of the elite schools where rich parents massively subsidize their children's education and tuition is far, far higher than Oklahoma's per pupil funding rate. Here the voucher acts merely as a tuition discount helping a few families save a little fun money.
The OK House GOP plan is a joke. Here the voucher is capped at $5,000, which is less than even the average cost of private schooling, nevermind the elite schools. The tax credit is refundable, which means it can exceed your tax liability but only if you save your receipts and apply for it. Given most families don't itemize anymore, the likelihood that lower or middle income people will even know to do this is fairly low. It's also a pain and a barrier many families won't try to get over. Rich families may apply but again, if you can afford Casady's $23,500 tuition, $5,000 probably isn't the make-or-break factor. It is a subsidy for the rich.
Oklahoma has tried for years to get as close to a full-on voucher as they can. The closest they've come is the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship. This is a program for families with children meeting certain requirements, it started as "special needs," meaning they had an individualized education plan (IEP) but then expanded to foster kids and other systemically disadvantaged groups. The sales pitch was that the hundreds of thousands of special needs, foster and other kids would be able to achieve the dream of school choice.
In a June 2020 article, OCPA got the band of arrogant white guys and sellouts together to sing their greatest hits and look at all the success this "movement" has had. As of 2020, a full decade after the law passed and opened the floodgates, a mere 850 kids utilize this obscure program. Despite having the full backing and advertising of lobbying groups, conservative think tanks, State Superintendent Ryan Walters, Governors and legislative leaders, roughly 0.1% of all Oklahoma public school kids (or 0.8% of eligible kids, though honestly, anyone can get an IEP for something) get the dream of "school choice."
What is happening to the other 99.9% of Oklahoma public school children? They continue to attend underfunded schools for which legislators have failed to restore the many funding cuts made over the previous decade, while giving hundreds of millions to a failed virtual charter school and continuing to keep our kids, who need the most help, starved of resources.
There is also the sunk cost of our existing infrastructure (school buildings, buses, technology, entire employment structures, etc) up against the huge costs to build new education capacity. We've spent generations investing in public schools and generally, the public likes its neighborhood or community based school. We currently have a very finite and limited amount of private school capacity. Maybe some suburban churches can ramp up a private school on the cheap, but then they are competing with our best resourced, highest scoring suburban school districts for kids. In rural areas, there is zero existing private school capacity. For the same reason rural schools are slowly dying (depopulation), private schools have zero chance of succeeding.
It was not accurate (or convincing) to make the claim that vouchers would kill rural schools during the last election. Rural schools have been dying for years. Vouchers will have little impact on rural schools except to pull money out of the overall system. Attempts by private interests to take over rural schools have already failed. EPIC tried to take over Panola a few years back and got out of it within a couple years citing financial concerns. Rural schools are massively subsidized by our government and few, if any, private interests are going to take a smaller voucher, sacrificing bond money for a dicey prospect of success in trying to compete in a rural school district with a shrinking number of students. If anything, vouchers are a completely useless solution for rural education.
In the urban areas, private schools have existed for generations. There might be some spare capacity but it is limited and they still get to decide who they take and who they don't. Nobody is building a large new private school on Oklahoma's per-pupil funding amount. Existing public schools get that PLUS bond money PLUS federal grants. Private school vouchers will be a percentage of the state funding formula. The capacity we have is what we'll likely keep. A very small handful of families, mostly those already in private schools, stand to benefit while the rest continue to wait for policy makers to improve the public system 90%+ Oklahomans have gone through and still rely on to this day.
The Real Discrimination of Religion
What vouchers might be successful at juicing is discrimination by the religious. Most private schools fall under some Christian church or another. While most find ways of broadening who they accept, they are under no requirements to do so. The literature is full of stories of religious schools discriminating against families of all types for many reasons. Public dollars going to religious institutions is strictly prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution and voters just reaffirmed that in 2016. Attempts to get around that have been cautious until recently. A major expansion of vouchers will certainly violate Article 2, Section 5.
More importantly is the argument around taxpayer funded religion. Should the government fund religious schools? Voters seem generally against this but that is what is set to happen. Most don't have an issue with private institutions building their own schools, but should taxpayer dollars go to schools that discriminate against 2SLGBTQ students or children who don't hold a religious belief? Do we publicly fund schools that teach highly dogmatic interpretations of their chosen religious text that preach hatred of different groups? We should also demand to know where public dollars are going, who is getting them and what they are teaching kids. It's the same energy that the far right has for public schools which already have to disclose all of that via various requirements and a publicly elected school board.
Lastly, there is zero accountability involved in most voucher scheme. Parochial schools want the government money but none of the oversight or requirements. It would be a system where families take vouchers to attend schools that are potentially teaching an anti-science education, that indoctrinate kids around specific interpretations of a religious text, that can discriminate without consequence or one where all aspects of schools management, operations, performance and personnel decisions are hidden from the public record and families attending the school. Private schools are only accountable to their private institution or their privately determined board. This is not how public money is supposed to work.
Giveaway to the Wealthy
Ultimately, this is a cash giveaway to the rich. The current voucher scheme in Oklahoma pays an average of $6,892. That is only enough to cover the cheaper private schools. For the people sending their kids to Casady, Heritage Hall, Bishop McGuinness, Cassia Hall and others, that amounts to a 30% discount. Poor families are no closer to achieving "school choice" than they were without the voucher. Also, these schools still decide who gets in and who doesn't. Unsurprisingly, these schools have a big incentive to preference their privileged clientele over these supposedly desperate families with a voucher.
The schools that do cost less than $7,000 generally have the teachers, facilities and resources to match. Giving kids a "choice" between a struggling public school and a corner-cutting, chronically on the edge of financial ruin, parochial school is not much of a choice. Based on the OCPA article from earlier, most families agree! The real evil of vouchers is the game we're all forced to play in pretending this is a viable solution when in reality it only directly benefits the rich and will only ever "help" less than .1% of families.
Vouchers are the garbage public policy of giving parents the illusion of choice by subsidizing wealthy private schools with taxpayer dollars. Private schools retain the ability to discriminate, kick kids out, raise tuition and fees, teach whatever they want and keep the "undesired" elements out of their school. For the privileged few, school vouchers rain thousands of dollars on these institution to subsidize already wealthy families.
Oklahomans would be wise to reject these proposals and stop electing people who propose them.
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