Legislative leaders and Gov. Mary Fallin announced Thursday that two bills aimed at creating a school voucher system in Oklahoma would not be considered this year at the state Capitol.
— Tulsa World (@tulsaworld) March 11, 2016
The bills, one each in the House and Senate, would have created Education Savings Accounts that could have been used by parents of school-aged students. These so-called ESAs, funded by taxpayer money, could have been used for tuition at private school. The vast majority of Oklahoma’s public education establishment, including myself, oppose the concept because it would take millions of dollars out of a school system consistently underfunded and already facing major cuts because of a current revenue failure and an expected state budget shortfall of $1.3 billion next year.
The move by House Speaker Jeff Hickman and Senate President Pro-Tempore Brian Bingman to remove the bills from consideration was obviously based on the reality of the current budget situation and the growing protest among educators. It was uncertain if there were enough votes to create a voucher system in the Republican-dominated legislature, especially given the state’s dire financial situation.
Gov. Mary Fallin tried to spin the vouchers as a way of helping “low-income” students, but the logic doesn’t work. The taxpayer money spent helping low-income children go to private schools, for example, would mean less educational dollars for low-income children in underfunded public schools. That’s obvious. Fallin and voucher supporters know this logic, but simply ignore it in the GOP quest to privatize as much government as they can. Here’s Fallin’s statement on this issue:
I appreciate legislative leaders for continuing the conversation on Education Savings Accounts. It’s important to give low-income parents the ability to determine the best educational opportunities for their children. All students learn differently and should have the opportunity to attend a school that offers the best learning environment for each student to be successful. I look forward to working with the House and Senate to develop effective legislation on ESAs.
Note the obligatory reference to “low-income parents.” The false sanctimony here should make everyone roll their eyes. Fallin, who has refused, for example, to expand the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act to provide better medical care to low-income people, can hardly be considered a champion of the poor.
Those opposed to a voucher system in Oklahoma were grateful at the outcome.
— OSSBA (@OSSBAoklahoma) March 10, 2016
There are at least two things left to be said about the voucher movement here.
(1) The issue is not going away. Oklahoma escaped this year because the budget reality made such a major structural shift in our education system difficult to promote. I expect it will be the same next year as well. But there will come a time in the future when the state doesn’t face major budget problems and the voucherteers will strike again. The only solutions for this are for the state to elect legislators who strongly support public education and for educators to speak out as loudly or even louder than they did this time against vouchers.
(2) In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the “major structural shift” vouchers would create in our public K-12 education system here. Because of chronic underfunding, the Oklahoma public school system simply cannot withstand such a shift, which would drain it of hundreds of millions of dollars through the years. Perhaps, states with high per-pupil funding rates that have a history of adequate school funding can withstand a higher level of privatization, but even in good funding years, many Oklahoma schools function financially at the level of schools in poorer countries around the world. There’s always an education crisis in Oklahoma brought about by years of underfunding and an anti-education mentality fostered by right-wing religious dogma. It’s not hyperbole to argue that a voucher system, given current education funding, would ensure a majority of Oklahoma’s public schools would operate under the same conditions as schools in Third World countries, schools without textbooks and basic equipment and few teachers. Yet Fallin and her cohorts claim they want to help low-income children.