Mark Costello | September 19, 2014

Statewide School Choice Program Would Benefit Wage-Earners

Mark Costello

Every child in America should have the same educational opportunity as do President Obama’s children. They enjoy school choice. However, the existing model of education for the last fifty-plus years places the interests of union officials, bureaucrats, and elite professionals before the interests of the child. This observation is not new or novel; rather, it is a succinct analysis of the problem children and their parents face today.

One of the legally defined duties of the Oklahoma commissioner of labor is to “foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of this state.” I can think of few better ways to do just that than to dramatically improve the level of education our high school graduates receive, better preparing them for college and the workplace. One key ingredient in any effort to help kids learn more is to afford them and their families the right to choose where they will attend school.

School choice—specifically via vouchers, tax credits, or Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)—would boost thousands of Oklahoma young people from the mediocrity that is unfortunately associated with many public schools to the more challenging learning environments in schools chosen by their parents.

That increased learning would translate into more young people who are better prepared for college and work, and in turn to a stronger economy for all Oklahomans. By any measure, school choice would do a great deal for the wage earners of this state.

The best scholarly work on the impact of school choice has been accumulated by Dr. Greg Forster, who surveyed the empirical research on private-school choice. Study after study—by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, the Federal Reserve, and elsewhere—finds that students given the option of attending better schools have better academic outcomes.

Best of all, the public schools many of them left behind also improved, thanks to the beneficial impact of competition. If families are leaving a school in large numbers, something is wrong. Those public schools with the courage to see this reality and respond will get better, too.

Vouchers, tax credits, and ESAs have been enacted in a number of jurisdictions, and the results have been impressive.
Before President Obama moved to kill the District of Columbia’s school voucher program, students who had escaped the often-dismal public schools were graduating at rates well above their peers in the public schools. College enrollment was also up among those fortunate young people.

In Florida, where a tax-credit program allows corporations to help fund private school scholarships (Oklahoma has a similar program), a half-decade of research by Dave Figlio of Northwestern University shows steady and consistent academic improvement among the scholarship students.

These are not cherry-picked students, as some opponents of school choice might claim. Figlio reports that the scholarship students disproportionately came from low-performing schools and were themselves likely to have been in academic trouble before their transfers.

And as Benjamin Scafidi pointed out in a recent analysis for OCPA, ESAs also save school dollars. Allowing parents to take part of the money they paid in taxes to educate their kids in a non-public school is a bargain for everyone.
How important would a statewide school choice program be for Oklahoma’s children?

It’s no secret that our public schools vary widely in quality. Some are excellent, thanks to strong community and parental support and an enrollment base that allows them to offer a full range of strong academics.

For decades, many Oklahoma parents have sought out those public school districts, often moving specifically to assure that their children would be able to attend them. But that’s not an option available to everyone. Moving to a place like Edmond or Norman may sound attractive; it is unfortunately out of reach for many families because of income or geography.

Their children deserve the same option—to find and choose a school where they can learn in a safe and challenging environment.

Simply put, a statewide school choice program for Oklahoma would afford greater educational opportunities to tens of thousands of children, challenge every public school to raise standards, and boost our economy and quality of life as the first generation of school-choice children enters the workforce better prepared to thrive and prosper.

A fourth-generation Oklahoman born in Bartlesville, Mark Costello is Oklahoma’s commissioner of labor. He founded AMCAT, a telephone software company, in 1984, and has since founded several technology companies. He has taken a sabbatical from his business ventures to serve as labor commissioner.

Mark Costello

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