Greg Forster, Ph.D. | June 19, 2023

School choice: Oklahoma’s challenge isn’t over

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

At long last, after the recent enactment of a new law, Oklahoma has universal school choice. But that doesn’t mean the work of providing educational choice to parents is over. On the contrary, this is the critical moment. If we want the program to benefit parents—and survive the inevitable angry backlash from education special interests—we now face the hard work of getting families signed up for the program. The good news is that, after some painful experiences, the school choice movement has figured out how to do this well.

Oklahoma recently created a tax credit to cover tuition costs of up to $7,500 per child for families that choose a private school for their child. The tax credit is refundable, so parents can get their costs covered regardless of their level of taxation. For good measure, the credit even covers up to $1,000 of costs per child for homeschooled families.

However, one of the perennial challenges of new school choice programs is getting families signed up. Most parents have no experience with these programs. Wrapping their heads around the process is a hurdle, and there is also a trust barrier that needs to be overcome.

It’s essential to take this problem seriously. Getting participation rates up quickly is essential to the political survival of school choice programs. These programs strike right at the heart of a coalition of special interests that profit by exploiting the education monopoly. These interests will do whatever it takes to kill newly created programs.

The number of families using the program is one of the most important factors determining whether the program survives. A program with a lot of parents will turn out chanting protestors in front of legislatures and courthouses—and let me tell you, that makes a huge difference. When legislators and their staff have to walk past children holding signs that say “Don’t Take Away My School” to get to their offices, they think about how that will look in their opponents’ ads at reelection time.

This is a lesson the school choice movement has learned well. Twenty years ago, when I was still a rookie, I remember losing a handful of programs because parental participation was low. We made the mistake of declaring victory and going home after the programs were passed, and we paid the price.

We haven’t done that in a long time. On the contrary, organizations like EdChoice (where I serve as a Friedman Fellow) invest time and labor in helping parents get connected after a new program is created. That’s why virtually no programs get rolled back now once they’re created.

The most difficult problem is that the families that need these programs most have the greatest difficulty accessing them. In general, the further up you go on the socioeconomic scale, the more plugged in to information systems people are (so they hear about the program) and the more time and ability they have for navigating bureaucracy (so they can use the program). The further down you go, the harder it is both to spread the word and to get people signed up.

I can speak to that not only from my two decades in the movement, but from my experience on the board of Kenosha Christian Academy, an elementary school that takes advantage of Wisconsin’s school choice policy to serve one of the most challenged neighborhoods in the state. During the annual program sign-up period, we have multiple staff who exert enormous effort—attending events, going door to door—spreading the word and getting people signed up. We literally sit there with people as they fill out forms. If we didn’t make this investment every year, students wouldn’t get signed up and our school couldn’t exist.

Oklahoma will have to get something like that up and running quickly if it wants healthy turnout rates for its new universal choice program. Unfortunately, as long as the special interests are still with us, the price of school choice is eternal vigilance.

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.

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