A couple of legislators, with support from the governor, are pushing for a sweeping school-voucher system in Oklahoma again this year, but the proposed plan could financially devastate our public schools, and with the state facing major budget problems, now is exactly the wrong time to implement such a system.
Two points need to be established before a discussion can even begin about the legislation:
(1) The vouchers are getting called Education Savings Accounts or ESA’s, but make no mistake these would be payments generated by overall tax dollars that parents can use to send their children to private schools. That’s the main point. Legislators can distort the language all they want, but what they’re proposing is a basic school-voucher system.
(2) If passed and signed into law, the law could eventually transfer a huge amount of taxpayer money to private and private-religious schools. The proposed legislation’s broader purposes, which are left unstated by its sponsors, of course, are to privatize education and endorse Christianity. It’s telling that recent forums about the vouchers were held at Mount St. Mary Catholic High School and and Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School.
— OSSBA (@OSSBAoklahoma) February 1, 2016
State Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) through House Bill 2949, and state Sen. Clark Jolley (R-Edmond) through Senate Bill 609, are resubmitting their school-voucher legislation this year. The legislation has failed to pass in recent years.
This is what Gov. Mary Fallin said about the voucher system in her State of the State address last week: “Finally, I’m 100 percent supportive of Education Savings Accounts. 100 percent.” Note the repeat of “100 percent.” She really means it this time I guess.
I encourage you to go through both bills by clicking the above links.The legislation is lengthy and convoluted. I’m summarizing broadly here as the legislation gets vetted and discussed at legislative level. Essentially, state dollars in per pupil spending of up to 80 percent in Jolley’s bill and 90 percent in Nelson’s bill could be used by students for private school tuition and educational items. How the per-pupil state spending rate gets calculated is contentious for right-wingers. Suffice it to say, according to reliable organizations and government agencies, such as the U.S. Census Bureau, Oklahoma for years has had one of the lowest overall per-pupil spending rates in the country. In essence, we would be taking what little education money we have in Oklahoma away from public schools and giving it to wealthy, private schools or religious indoctrination academies.
Some of the voucher money, 5 percent or less when considering both bills, would go to administering the program.
Jolley’s bill held over from last year has an attached fiscal statement that indicates the impact would be, and I quote directly, “$880,000/unknown.” Nelson’s bill has no attached fiscal impact statement. I’ve reread a lot of news stories about the ESA’s over the last couple of years, and I haven’t encountered a lot of discussion of how much the transfer of money to private schools would actually impact funding for public schools. That seems to be the most important point.
Last year, then-Tulsa Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard said the voucher system would have “a disastrous effect on public schools,” according to a news article. Ballard said then his schools would have lost $1 million for every 500 students who used the voucher system as it was proposed last year.
For the state’s largest districts, the lost money could add up quite quickly. People living in rural areas have less school choices, of course. That seems obvious. But, more important, it seems irresponsible during a tremendously challenging budget year to pass legislation without a clear idea of how much money public schools will lose in the process.
In the past, Nelson has claimed the program would especially help low-income school children, but that’s truly speculation, as well, and there are a number of social, cultural and basic day-to-day living issues that complicate the matter. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that no or just an extremely small number of school children from low-income families would use the program, but there are issues like lack of transportation, social adaptation/pressures and other high costs associated with private schools that complicate Nelson’s rosy view. The way to address poverty is through higher wages and better health care, not taking money away from neighborhood public schools.
The proposed voucher system would probably just wind up in the end mostly helping parents who already send their children to private schools, such as the two Catholic schools mentioned earlier. That’s what happened in Wisconsin. I also see this as a program that could potentially enable more middle-class students or upper-middle class students to go to the few elite private schools in our state or eventually (I stress this word on purpose) to help parents form a very small number of new elite and expensive private schools.
I also see this as a program that will expand and create more religious-based schools in the state and the elimination of standard scientific teaching in those schools, which will dumb down many of our students. In my view, using taxpayer dollars in this way to fund religious schools is a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Several states, which have vouchers, are now funding the teaching of creationism, according to one older Slate.com article. Oklahoma has a voucher system or tax credit system for disabled children right now, and the article claims five participating schools in the state teach creationism.
— Education Votes (@edvotes) February 7, 2016
More than anything else, however, I see school vouchers as a way to attack and dismantle public education in this country. Starve public schools of needed funding, and then call them “failures,” and give all the school money to private interests and religious schools under the rhetoric of “school choice.” It’s a longtime, right-wing political strategy. It’s the epitome of prevailing GOP ideology that embodies both the party’s mission of increasing income inequality in favor of the wealthiest among us and breaking down the barrier between church and state. It plays equally to both fiscal and social conservatives.
Oklahoma faces a major teacher shortage right now because of low salaries. The state has also cut education funding here the most of any state on a per capita basis since 2008. It also faces an approximate $1 billion budget shortfall for next year.
It’s never a good time to take money away from our public schools, but our current fiscal problems make this an extremely bad moment to implement a sweeping voucher system. We don’t even know clearly how much it’s going to cost public schools and what the educational impact might be as funding decreases even more.
— Shawn Hime (@shawnhime) February 1, 2016