Patrick B. McGuigan | September 1, 2009

Leading Analysts Back School Choice for Special Needs, Early Childhood

Patrick B. McGuigan

In recent months, Oklahoma has become a hotbed for substantive discussion of educational policy.

At the July 27 Oklahoma Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment, three prominent analysts, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. James Heckman, made the case for increased spending on early childhood education. And in response to a question from this writer, Heckman reiterated his support for school choice, saying it "engages both the private sector and the public sector in production of ideas to meet educational needs." There ought to be "multiple, diverse modes of delivery," Heckman added. "The process of experimentation is necessary, to involve the private sector in development."

School choice "has a role, competition plays a role" in good policy, Heckman believes. Private-sector involvement will assure that private financing is made available for early childhood education, "especially in times of economic challenge." Heckman contended choice in education demonstrates "respect for cultural diversity" and is a way to "improve funding and performance."

When choice is permitted, he said, "religious groups can pick for themselves" how to meet those needs in development of a child's cognition and self-control. He said such programs can and should accommodate the interests of "Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Southern Baptists, you name it."

From outside the state, a critical view of government pre-K programs comes from Dr. Adam B. Schaeffer of the Cato Institute. In an August 3 report, he concludes that "Preschool can provide small but statistically significant short-term gains for low-income children; however, these gains usually fade quickly in later grades. There is little evidence to support the belief that large-scale government preschool programs are effective, by themselves, in improving long-term student outcomes. Reform of the existing K-12 system should therefore remain the primary focus of those interested in sustainable improvement in student outcomes."

"The growing popularity of state-run preschool programs and the glowing portrayals of them by the media, politicians, and some policy institutes rests on a remarkably thin foundation," he says.

He proposes an early education tax credit, saying it would "improve the quality and efficiency of preschool options by harnessing market forces and would pay for itself by using savings generated from the migration of students from public to private schools in grades K-4."

In late June, a bipartisan trio of legislators supported a proposal to allow public-school students with special needs to attend private schools of their choice. OCPA joined the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice to unveil a policy paper outlining how a $5,000 scholarship program, supported by limited tax credits, could make quality special education available to more Oklahoma youth.

Promising support in the upcoming legislative session were state Sens. John Ford of Bartlesville and Clark Jolley of Edmond, both Republicans. Also backing the concept was state Rep. Jabar Shumate, a Tulsa Democrat serving as new chairman of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus. Shumate has become a leading advocate of school choice.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is an editor at The City Sentinel.

Patrick B. McGuigan

Independent Journalist

A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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