Greg Forster, Ph.D. | October 7, 2022
Oklahoma needs grants for education deserts
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
A new program empowers Oklahoma parents to get help from non-government service providers in the task of raising their children. The program provides public money to private companies to the tune of $10,000 per child.
Oklahoma is enacting a new program to expand access to daycare services in “child care deserts.” This program to empower parents to get help from non-government service providers in the task of raising their children of ages three and under is being lavished with positive attention by people who regularly demonize school choice programs, which do the same thing for children of ages four and over. Here as in so many other places, empowering people to make their own choices is always right, unless it hinders the special interests who control the government school monopoly from keeping their gravy trains running on time.
The new program gives private companies grants if they open new daycare facilities in areas designated by the state as child care deserts. The grants are worth $10,000 per child served by the facility. The justification is that too many child care centers didn’t survive the pandemic lockdown, and the state is helping start new ones up.
A cynic might note that the program comes with a long list of restrictions that raise questions about its real motivations. Grant recipients will have to prove that they didn’t spend any of the money on physical plant (no purchasing, constructing, or renovating property), supplies of any kind (no diapers, wipes, cleaning materials, staplers, paper, etc.—even “soap” and “pens” are specifically forbidden), field trips, and more. They also can’t provide fee-reducing scholarships to make child care less expensive for the parents who are supposedly the beneficiaries of the program.
That leaves more or less one thing they can do with the money: hire staff. As usual with government spending, it’s all about cultivating a patronage base whose jobs depend on voting the right way. Letting child care facilities buy cleaning supplies saves lives, but it doesn’t get politicians elected.
Heaping positive attention upon this new program to help parents hire companies to assist them in raising their children are outlets like the Tulsa World, which was last seen this spring publishing its editorial view of school choice programs: that it’s monstrous to help parents hire companies to assist them in raising their children. School choice is long since proven to improve educational outcomes not only for the students who use it, but for students who remain in public schools. But it does interfere with the power of educational special interests—talk about a patronage class!—to siphon taxpayer money out of the system. So as soon as the students turn four and are eligible for pre-K services in the government’s K-12 school monopoly, all our moral principles for helping that child are suddenly inverted.
The World’s school choice editorial, like all its contributions on this issue, was a brainless regurgitation of factually false special-interest propaganda. Meanwhile, its “news” story on the new child care program is an equally brainless regurgitation of the official propaganda from the other side. If you want to find out how the program is structured to make life harder for both the parents and the daycare centers in order to maximize the cultivation of a patronage class, you have to go dig that up yourself. I’d like to see the Tulsa World support school choice, but what I’d really love is to see it have an original thought.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see blatant hypocrisy about school choice as students enter the K-12 school system, when we’ve been seeing it for generations as they leave it. Since the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. has invested in college education—in some ways, it has invested far too much in college education—through an enormous national system of school voucher programs. School vouchers are the spawn of Satan right up until students get their high-school diplomas, and then magically they transform into manna from heaven.
In 2009, I sent this letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal:
I wish to correct a factual error in your otherwise outstanding editorial “Bashing Career Colleges” (July 22). You erroneously state that “Pell grants and other public aid can be used like a voucher for public or private colleges and universities.” In fact, Pell grants and other government-sponsored college scholarships cannot be used “like” school vouchers because they are school vouchers.
Alas, they didn’t print it.
Now, this is great fun, and we could go on with lots of other examples. So let’s do that for just one more paragraph! When we want to help the poor buy food, we don’t create a government monopoly system of grocery stores and dictate to them what food they’re allowed to buy. We give them vouchers—food stamps—to empower them to make their own choices and control their own lives. Are there problems in that program? Some, yes, but on the whole it works as intended. Up until the 1980s, the federal government ran housing projects for the poor, where living conditions were so horrifyingly inhumane that some of the projects had to be bulldozed. Under the leadership of Jack Kemp, we switched to the Section 8 housing voucher system—basically, “housing stamps”—and, again, on the whole it works.
The gravy train for special interests is one important reason for the hypocrisy on both the entry and exit ends of the K-12 school system. Unfortunately, it’s not the worst one. The even more sinister reason for it is that the core supporters of the government school monopoly don’t believe the purpose of the K-12 school system is to help parents raise their children. They want children raised by the state. They’ve said this time and again—see for example the entire corpus of John Dewey, or Amy Gutmann’s Democratic Education, or any of the other longtime central pillars of education-school curricula.
But there is also a warning here for school choice supporters. Oklahoma’s new child care policy and our national college policy show that while breaking the government monopoly is imperative, bad program design can reproduce the patronage problem in the private sector. The school choice movement has always included some people whose real interest is not parental freedom, but the special interests of existing private schools. They want to turn private school employees into a new patronage class—they look at the gravy train in the government school monopoly and they say: We want some of that.
Fortunately, good program design—like Education Savings Accounts—keeps power in the hands of parents, where it belongs. If Oklahoma really cared about parents in “child care deserts,” it would give the parents daycare ESAs and let them get services from any legal provider, including hiring a babysitter. In other words, it would let them control their own lives. And it wouldn’t stop doing that when the children turn four—because the government school monopoly is a statewide education desert.
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.