Brandon Dutcher | November 13, 2014

Parents, Not Government Officials, Should Determine Their Child’s Path

Brandon Dutcher

In 2007 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a report, “Leaders & Laggards,” which gave Oklahoma’s public school system an “F.” The report said “student performance in Oklahoma is very poor—the state ranks among the lowest in the nation.” This sobering news prompted Oklahoma State University regent Burns Hargis to remark, “If this report is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.”

Fast forward seven years, and Oklahoma received another wake-up call. In the 2014 edition of “Leaders & Laggards,” Oklahoma again earned an “F” for academic achievement. “Student performance in Oklahoma is very weak,” the report said.

How then shall we improve student performance? Many continue to call for more government spending on Oklahoma’s monopoly system. But as the nearby chart shows, we’ve tried that. It has not been a wise use of scarce resources. There is essentially no link between state education spending and student performance.

It makes no sense to continue pouring increasing sums of money into a failed monopoly. Let’s try something different. Let’s try educational choice.

Educational choice refers to any policy that allows parents to choose the safest and best schools for their children, whether those schools are government-operated or privately operated. Fortunately, Oklahoma already has many forms of school choice—both public-school choice (charter schools, magnet and specialty schools, online schools, and more) and private-school choice (Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for special-needs students and Equal Opportunity tax-credit scholarships).

Now some may say, “School choice is all well and good, but that can’t be our main focus. We need to fix public schools.” True enough. But aside from the fact that it’s difficult to fix schools that don’t want to be fixed (see, the truth is that school choice improves public schools.

Dr. Greg Forster, who writes frequently in these pages, recently surveyed the empirical research on school choice. He found that “23 empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.”

As convincing as those scientific research findings are, they shouldn’t necessarily have the last word. After all, “there is no such thing as a ‘scientifically right’ education policy,” Forster says.

Science cannot identify what education policy is most fitting to the intrinsic nature of the human person, or most aligned with America’s ideals of freedom and democratic self-rule. To answer those questions, one needs other kinds of knowledge—knowledge about the nature of human life, the meaning of freedom and democracy, and the historic self-understanding of the American people.

Professor Jay Greene has perceptively noted that, in a free society, the government rightly defers to parents when it comes to raising their children. And since education is simply a subcategory of parenting, the government should defer to parents when it comes to educating their children.

“Do the right and the responsibility to educate children belong primarily to parents, or to the state?” Melissa Moschella asked in a recent essay published by The Witherspoon Institute. Dr. Moschella, an assistant professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, writes:

Disputes about parental rights are ultimately disputes about authority. Either childrearing authority fundamentally resides in the political community (which partially delegates that authority to parents), or parental authority is natural and pre-political, based on the nature of the parent-child relationship. …

The personal relationship that parents establish with their child beginning at conception gives them the special, personal obligation to provide for their child’s developmental needs at all levels until that child can take charge of providing for those needs on his own. It also makes them uniquely competent to carry out this task.

Now granted, “the state does have a role in education,” she acknowledges.

This is because political authority, like all authority, exists to promote the common good, which includes the individual well-being of the community’s members. In the political community, the common good also involves the education of future citizens. However, the state’s role and authority to foster the well-being of children is a subsidiary one, meaning that it is secondary to the role of the parents, and serves the function of helping parents in their educational task, not usurping or undermining the parents’ educational efforts. …

Parents should not be forced, for financial reasons, to send their children to schools in which the values taught conflict with those they want to pass on to their children. An effective voucher or scholarship program of some sort is therefore also a requirement of parental rights.

And make no mistake, parents are hungry to exercise those rights. As we noted in these pages in February, when asked in a recent scientific survey what type of school they would select in order to obtain the best education for their children, only 33 percent of Oklahoma parents said a traditional public school. Fully 38 percent said they would choose a private school, 14 percent said home school, and 7 percent said charter school.

Policy Prescriptions

What then shall Oklahoma’s political leaders do to secure the rights of their constituents?

  • Enact Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Put parents in charge by allowing them to bank a portion of their child’s per-pupil funding and use it for private school tuition, tutoring, online classes, educational therapy, college savings, or a customized mix of options.
  • Enact individual tax credits. Allow parents to receive state income tax relief for private school tuition, online learning, tutoring, and other approved educational expenses.
  • Expand tax-credit scholarships. Strengthen Oklahoma’s Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program by expanding eligibility and removing the funding cap.

“Public education” is not about propping up a failed monopoly. The goal of public education is an educated public—regardless of where that education takes place. Oklahoma parents should be empowered to choose among various delivery mechanisms.

Many Oklahomans will doubtless continue to argue for more education spending. But what matters is not the amount but rather the beneficiary. Policymakers should invest in the child, not in the system.


In a March 2014 paper, Cato Institute scholar Andrew J. Coulson uses a time-series regression approach and “adjusts state SAT score averages for factors such as participation rate and student demographics, which are known to affect outcomes, then validates the results against recent state-level National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores. This produces continuous, state-representative estimated SAT score trends reaching back to 1972. The paper charts these trends against both inflation-adjusted per pupil spending and the raw, unadjusted SAT results, providing an unprecedented perspective on American education inputs and outcomes over the past 40 years.” The results charted here are for Oklahoma.

Brandon Dutcher Senior Vice President

Brandon Dutcher

Senior Vice President

Brandon Dutcher is OCPA’s senior vice president. Originally an OCPA board member, he joined the staff in 1995. Dutcher received his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oklahoma. He received a master’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in public policy from Regent University. Dutcher is listed in the Heritage Foundation Guide to Public Policy Experts, and is editor of the book Oklahoma Policy Blueprint, which was praised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman as “thorough, well-informed, and highly sophisticated.” His award-winning articles have appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, WORLD magazine,,, The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, and 200 newspapers throughout Oklahoma and the U.S. He and his wife, Susie, have six children and live in Edmond.

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