Ray Carter | February 25, 2022

Cobb, Small spar in school-choice forum

Ray Carter

Public-school failures are often cited as justification for allowing state funds to instead follow a child to any school, which would give families greater leverage in education and allow them to choose from an array of options, including private schools.

But during a recent online forum, a prominent Oklahoma opponent of school choice cited problems with public schools—including alleged misuse of taxpayer funds and politically manipulated testing—as a reason to not allow parents to escape those public schools.

“Cindy Byrd, the state auditor and inspector, has cited mishandling of learning funds by Epic Charter Schools and questioned the use of tens of millions of unaccounted-for state dollars,” said Rick Cobb, superintendent of the Mid-Del School District. “When we are talking about either tax credits or vouchers, how do we know we aren’t just stepping into the same waters?”

Epic, which is part of Oklahoma’s public-school system, has been accused of misspending taxpayer funds. No comparable misspending or taxpayer embezzlement has been alleged to have occurred within Oklahoma’s private-school system.

Cobb made those comments as part of an online discussion of Education Savings Accounts moderated by Daniel Hamlin, a professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Cobb and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) president Jonathan Small represented the con and pro sides of the debate, respectively.

The event largely centered on Senate Bill 1647, by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, which would create the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program. Under the program, any student eligible to enroll in a public school would be eligible for an OEA, which could be used to pay for a range of education services, including private-school tuition. Money deposited into the account comes from the per-pupil allotment of state funding already dedicated for education of a child.

The bill requires random auditing of 10 percent of accounts each year to ensure money is spent on education needs and not diverted to other uses.

Cobb also complained that private schools are not required to participate in state testing—before he decried those same state tests as unreliable and politicized.

“We have to stop teaching every spring and give state tests, and then usually wait several months to get the results back,” Cobb said. “The people we’ve elected over the years to serve us in the Legislature have decided that these regulations, and many more, are important to ensuring quality and accountability in public schools.”

But he subsequently derided the reliability of state tests when it was noted they show a small share of Oklahoma students are performing at grade level.

“Another common thread in discussions about vouchers is that they give parents a way to get their children out of failing schools,” Cobb said. “Well, what is a failing school, exactly? We’ve redefined that several times throughout my career and it’s always based on standardized test scores, which politicians can also manipulate.”

In 2016, he noted 82 percent of Oklahoma third graders passed state reading tests, but just 49 percent did so the following year after standards were raised.

The grading change referenced by Cobb was implemented to bring Oklahoma’s standards up to national benchmarks. A 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that Oklahoma state tests declared fourth-grade students “proficient” even when their reading scores would be rated “below basic” on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. That meant students declared to be at grade level in Oklahoma were more than a year below grade level according to NAEP.

But Cobb said the change in test standards was simply “part of a larger political narrative.”

“Politicians and bureaucrats have been trying to tell parents that schools are failing their children for decades,” Cobb said. “The data that they use to try to make their case is easy to orchestrate as long as they control the levers.”

He also dismissed widespread parent concern about the inclusion of Critical Race Theory (CRT) tenets in classroom instruction or opposition to mask mandates for young children and similar measures. Cobb said critics “have dreamed up boogeymen like CRT out of whole cloth and demonized every pandemic mitigation strategy that schools have deployed.”

Unless private schools are subjected to the same regulations that Cobb decried as politicized and ineffective, he said accountability would be lacking in school-choice programs.

“If we’re investing in education outside of the public-school sphere, I still have a huge question about how we’re going to in any way see a modicum of accountability,” Cobb said.

But Small said school-choice programs have a far more effective accountability mechanism.

“When you allow the dollars to follow the child to the school that best meets that student’s needs, that is the ultimate accountability,” Small said. “That’s a better level of accountability than any reporting or government structure that might be set up by the Legislature.”

If parents can withdraw a student and associated funding from a school that’s not working for the child, “that’s the ultimately accountability structure,” Small said.

He noted beneficiaries of most government programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are allowed to choose from a range of providers, including private-sector entities, rather than being assigned to one vendor based on geography.

“We are allowed to choose—if you’re a recipient of SNAP or (the) food-stamp program—any single grocery store that’s willing or other convenience store that will take SNAP assistance,” Small said. “For the billions of dollars that are spent in Medicaid, Medicaid recipients are able to choose the public or private hospital of their choice. Many of those hospitals are religious hospitals. And when it comes to higher education, one of the beauties of higher education is that if you live south of I-40, you are not required to attend OU, and if you live north of I-40, you’re not required to attend Stillwater.”

Small noted that K-12 education is the “one outlier where there is limited choice,” and the results show the de facto monopoly system is not producing positive results.

“At a time of record funding in education, academic performance in Oklahoma is at a level where 24 percent of students are proficient, teachers are more worn out than they have ever been, and parents are more frustrated than they’ve ever been about the lack of ability to give input,” Small said.

He noted that of 169 major studies of school-choice programs nationally, 158 found that school-choice programs either generated benefit or did no harm.

Small said policymakers should not focus on funding specific facilities—school buildings—but instead on making sure education funding benefits children.

“What’s most important is: What does a child need?” Small said. “What does an individual student need for the path that best works for them? And the person that has the best ability to start that conversation and help a student chart that path is whatever parent or guardian is involved in their life.”

Critics have argued school choice won’t benefit rural students because there are currently fewer private schools in those areas. But Small noted the economic environment would change significantly if SB 1647 becomes law, incentivizing the creation of new private schools in rural areas.

“It makes sense that there aren’t as many options to choose when the current system is forcing a monopoly,” Small said. “Southwestern Bell assured us that deregulation was not going to work, that there were not going to be other service providers that would come to the surface to provide for people. Yet when deregulation happened and consumers began to get choices, providers emerged. I expect the same thing to happen, just as it is already happening on a small scale with the existing school-choice programs that we have. Once the money is more controlled by parents who have a front-row seat to the needs of their child, I’m confident that we will see more options and opportunities spread for schooling that cannot exist right now because of the unique one-size-fits-none approach of K-12 funding.”

Editor's Note: To watch the full debate, please click here.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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