The Problems With “School Choice”
Every legislative session in Oklahoma, the topic of “School Choice” rears its head. People become “School Choice” advocates because they believe the concept will put parents back in the driver’s seat for their children’s education. But what does the term “School Choice” actually mean?
EdChoice, an organization that has been touting “School Choice” for many years, provides this definition:
School choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs —whether that’s to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment families choose.
This makes sense to me. School Choice has to be about MONEY. It can’t be about a choice of schools, because Oklahoma has a near smorgasbord of choices to provide parents for schooling their children. Let’s look at them:
- Here in Oklahoma, our Constitution makes it clear that parents have the absolute right to direct the education of their children through homeschooling. Homeschooling is an educational choice.
- Oklahoma has 1784 public schools. Last session (2021) SB783 was passed. This law allows parents to be able to transfer their child/children among public schools instead of them being assigned to a school according to their zip code. Transfer amounts to a choice.
- Here in Oklahoma, we have a thriving private school network of 96 schools. Parents who are able and would like to do so, may CHOOSE to send their child/children to a private school.
- Oklahoma also has a thriving Charter school network – some brick and mortar – and others virtual. Parents can choose whether or not to send their child/children to either type of charter school.
So, it seems it would be hard to be an Oklahoma parent who then argues you don’t have much of a choice as to where you sent your child to school. Yes, not all parents can afford to homeschool or put their child/children in private school, yet that doesn’t negate these as valid choices and many parents work hard to scrimp and save in order to keep their children home or send them to a private school.
Fortunately, Oklahoma has a HUGE NUMBER OF SCHOOL CHOICES available to parents, so why do we continually talk about “School Choice”?
Returning to EdChoice’s definition, because legislators feel that parents should be able to send their children to ANY school they want, something that can only happen if tax dollars are appropriated to people who can’t afford to send their child/children to private school or keep them home for homeschool.
Herein lies the problem. Once money leaves the hand of a citizen as a tax, it becomes property of the government who receives the tax. Now, it’s the government’s job to make sure that tax dollar is accounted for transparently.
Let’s say that Oklahoma gives parents part or all of the money it would have spent to educate their child and says, “Here, you can use this any way you’d like to educate your child.”
The thrilled parents then take that money to a private school and enroll their child. Unfortunately, the private school that receives the funds is now accountable to the state to make sure that money is spent properly.
In order to do that, the state now has the ability to ask the private school to perform certain tasks to assure them of the way in which that money is spent and suddenly, the private school now has strings from State government it never had before. How many strings can a private school have to the government for state money before it’s no longer really a private school? At what point does the State government get to tell the private school what kind of curricula they may offer, or regulate the type of teachers they want to hire because, well, accountability of taxpayer funds?
Unfortunately, there’s more. Oklahoma has never fully repealed Blaine Amendment language from our Constitution. The Blain Amendment is a failed federal law created in the late 1800’s proposed to ostensibly prevent Catholic schools by denying them access to public funds. Though the federal law failed, many states added similar language to their Constitution, as did Oklahoma.
It would be an extremely difficult task to take funds designated as public, give them to parents and allow them to finance a child’s private school education – especially at a private religious school.
We’ve all seen the mess that has been created by Epic Charter School’s administrative arm – Epic Youth Services. If state funds are given to parents to use for expenses related to the homeschooling of their children, how could the state not expect parents to account for every dime of state money provided them? They certainly would have every right to do so, yet now a homeschooling parent could find themselves in the unenviable situation of having to report to the state on behalf of their homeschool.
What if the state doesn’t ‘like’ a type of curricula a parent chooses, or the type of activity a child prefers? What happens to the autonomy of the homeschooling parent in that case?
Granted, it seems like a stretch – and legislators would be sure to say that would never happen – but who in the world would have ever thought that in the last two years the government would force people to wear masks, take vaccines and shut down businesses? Hopefully, if we’ve learned anything else from the pandemic, we’ve learned that governments are less about individual rights and more about power and control.
And what about taking public money and giving it to parents to allow their children to homeschool or attend private school? What about the families who scrimp and save to provide these options for their children? Isn’t that the state creating an equity program?
TRULY, THERE SEEMS TO BE NO WAY FOR THE STATE TO ALLOW PARENTS TO HAVE STATE MONEY TO FINANCE THEIR CHILD’S EDUCATION. The only way to do anything of the sort is some form of TAX CREDIT:
1. Allow parents to keep the money they WOULD HAVE given to the state in taxes for public education. This way, the money is only ever the parents – it never becomes the property of state government. Parents can use that money to help finance a private education, or homeschool their child/children.
2. Allow parents who are unable to finance their child’s private or homeschool to apply for ‘scholarship’ funds placed into an account by people who want to donate to the scholarship. Oklahoma already has the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship, that can simply be broadened.
3. Parents should begin planning for their child’s education early on and make after-tax deposits into the State 529 Plan. Though ostensibly a college savings program, funds may be deducted to pay for homeschool or private school expenses as well.
Unfortunately, like with so many things, there is no free lunch in education. It’s important to understand the issues surrounding “School Choice” and not merely carry the flag of “School Choice”. Private schools do not need any further state regulation and homeschoolers want absolutely no interference from government in their schools. Let’s be VERY CAREFUL then, when we discuss the term “School Choice” and keep government sequestered in its own lane.
Jenni make some good points, but the parents who need the most choice are poor families or families who are trapped into sending their children to failing schools. How do we help THEM with choices? Competition always make competitors better. I predict that if school tax money followed parents’ wishes for their child’s education, there would be MANY new private schools which would spring up. How many large church buildings have education classrooms used only once per week? Private schools would pop up in neighborhoods close to some of these failing public schools, allowing poor parents additional choices. Teachers and principals should also have choices. Some professional educators would flow to schools, private or public, where discipline is insured and education is stressed. Teachers I talk to long for the opportunity to simply teach, not baby sit. Teachers would love more options.
Right now Oklahoma has some of the worst standardized test results for 3rd and 8th grade students of any state in the country. These results are available on our Oklahoma government web sites. I can’t see that some additional competition between schools for parents’ selection of sending their children (and associated dollars) could do anything but reward the better schools and make the schools losing students enact measures to improve their own performance.
What if we had only one company providing groceries to the public? That company would not feel inclined to work to improve their services. But when a new grocery store pops up next door, my my my. Action for improvements start magically happening. All consumers win when competition is freely available. Let’s keep talking about how we CAN allow the dollars follow parents’ school choices. Other states have wrestled with these questions and have learned how to do it. We can do the same. Our children are too precious to continue our present system which is failing them in too many instances.