A Firehose of Bad Ideas for Public Education

Merit pay for teachers? Vouchers (also known as Education Savings Accounts or ESAs, Tax Credit Scholarships, Opportunity Scholarships and Tuition Tax Credits)? Protecting students from litterboxes in schools? My head is spinning with the bad ideas coming up this legislative session.

Let’s just touch on vouchers because that legislation is rising from the dead, even though it was buried last session.

How Vouchers Work

Imagine that you have a friend who has an extra $100. She wants to share the money with 10 friends by giving each one $10 to spend at the restaurant of their choice, a steakhouse or a fish restaurant. The fish restaurant has had problems getting fresh fish because of transportation delays, so it has lost money and had to cut back on extras. The professional chef left and was replaced with a high school student. The steakhouse is doing very well and continues to serve an exclusive clientele.

Three of the friends were unable to add the extra cash necessary to pay for their meal, so they opted to buy food to cook at home, even though they are terrible cooks. Two friends had to go to the fish restaurant because they have disabilities and were unable to navigate the steakhouse, which was not set up for people with disabilities. Two more friends had to choose the fish restaurant because they didn’t have transportation to the steakhouse. Two more didn’t bother to research either restaurant, so they just went to the neighborhood fish restaurant, thinking both restaurants were equal, only to find that they had to eat week-old fish cooked by a teenager. One friend out of the 10 used her $10 voucher to have a perfectly cooked steak at the exclusive, well-resourced steakhouse.

Voucher “choices” are like the two restaurants. It isn’t a true choice unless the choices are equal, and everyone has the ability to actually make the choice. Public education serves all children, and state leaders should be looking at ways to serve those children by providing better across-the-board pay for teachers, up-to-date buildings with ventilation for the next pandemic, small class sizes, support that various populations need, among other real and concrete improvements that contribute to the environment where our children are learning. Instead, they’re talking about Furries and indoctrination.

Voucher Bills in Oklahoma

There are many cut-and-paste voucher bills popping up in states across the U.S. Governor Stitt and State Superintendent of Education Ryan Walters support them. Here’s an interesting article about privatizing education in Oklahoma in The Oklahoman. oklahoman.com/story/news/politics/government/2023/02/02/ryan-walters-oklahoma-school-vouchers-backed-walmart-walton-family-foundation/69856893007/

Vouchers in all their forms take taxpayer money and give it to parents to use for private school tuition or homeschool/education supplies. (I hope Ryan Walters will not be responsible for distributing any of this money – we saw how well he handled the Emergency Education Relief funds. He was questioned about this during a budget hearing. I wonder if State Superintendent Walters will be one of the “state officials” that Attorney General Gentner Drummond is talking about pursuing?)

Senate Bill 822 and Senate Bill 943

Sens. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, filed Senate Bill 822, and Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, filed Senate Bill 943, both supporting the “choice” concept of giving parents the funds that would normally go to their public school to educate the child. Proponents of vouchers say they allow students to escape “failing schools” and their failing zip codes.

Opponents of vouchers say that they take away money from already underfunded public schools. And, regardless of the number of students enrolled, the public school must continue to pay for materials, utility bills, library books, teachers and assistants and any number of things to keep the building open and comfortable for students. Rural districts say it could be especially devastating for them. They don’t have private schools for students to attend.

“Trigger” School Districts

Apparently, Senator Jett not only supports choice in the form of vouchers, but he is very concerned about “indoctrination” from educators. He doesn’t want to destroy rural public schools, but he does want students to have a way out, even if they live in lightly populated areas. According to an article in the Tulsa World, Jett’s bill “stipulates students in counties with fewer than 10,000 residents could only qualify for a voucher if they attend a ‘trigger’ school district.“

What is a “trigger school district”? There’s a list of the usual evils, from schools that teach about climate change to those that don’t ban books with obscene material (I don’t know who is defining that), and those that somehow don’t support the second amendment, but my favorite is that Sen. Jett wants to protect children from Furries. There’s an urban myth traveling around social media and echoed by some politicians that schools have had to install litter boxes for staff and students who profess to be Furries. edweek.org/leadership/litter-boxes-in-schools-how-a-disruptive-and-demeaning-hoax-frustrated-school-leaders/2022/11

This one made me laugh. Wherever Oklahoma kids go to school, I hope they will learn to identify a hoax.

What does the research say about vouchers?

It’s commendable that Oklahoma legislators want to improve education for students, especially those in underserved communities, but vouchers are not the best option. In fact, research simply doesn’t support the contention that any students, other than the ones already enrolled in private schools, benefit from vouchers.

Proponents of vouchers or ESAs like to point to Arizona as a model since the state has had vouchers for a decade. It’s instructive to look at how vouchers have performed in states that are using them. Here is a recent analysis of Arizona’s voucher law, called the Empowerment Scholarship Account. Because voucher laws have cropped up in Idaho, the Idaho Statesman ran an editorial using research from the centrist think tank Grand Canyon Institute, which analyzed the zip code distribution of applications for vouchers and here is what they found:

High-income zip codes are overrepresented in voucher applications, and low-income zip codes are underrepresented. While only 11% of Arizona’s students live in zip codes with median incomes of more than $100,000, those students made up nearly 20% of the voucher applicants. Meanwhile, more than half of Arizona’s students live in zip codes with median incomes less than $60,000, but those students made up only 32% of the applicants. 

Nearly half (45%) of the applicants came from the wealthiest quarter of students in the state, living in zip codes where the median household income is $80,000 or more. 

80% of the applicants were not in public school, meaning these students were already attending private schools, being home schooled or are just entering schooling — not being “rescued” from a “failing” school. 

Only 3.5% of all applicants came from zip codes that qualified for the earlier version of school vouchers that sought to help kids living in failing districts. 

Arizona is unable to measure academic impacts of the voucher program because there were no accountability measures in the legislation. 

A school voucher is worth $7,000, but the average private school tuition is over $10,000. 

Private schools can accept or reject students as they choose. 

Total private school subsidies in Arizona have now reached $600 million. 

In other voucher states, similar studies have found similar results. Vouchers are typically used by students who are already in private schools. It has also been shown that, like Arizona, vouchers are expensive to taxpayers, and especially to students in public schools. While education budgets in Arizona and other states such as Indiana have grown, per pupil spending has remained low.

Oklahoma schools have been chronically underfunded for years. Our per-pupil spending is one of the lowest in the nation. How does it make sense to take more money away from schools that are already at the bottom of the barrel regarding resources?

Categories: Editor’s Blog