Free Market Friday: On a mission to save lives

June 17, 2016

Jonathan Small

Critics of school choice policies – such as vouchers, tax credits and education savings accounts – love to claim that school choice is for the rich.

But what about an ordinary child for whom changing schools could literally mean the difference between life and death? That’s the case with some parents in Oklahoma City who have chosen to enroll their children at Mission Academy High School, operated by the nonprofit Teen Recovery Solutions.

Mission Academy students are young people with serious addiction issues. Most have failed in or been expelled from their original schools. At Mission Academy, the only recovery high school in the state, they continue school but they also experience intensive peer counseling, regular drug tests, and an atmosphere that encourages sobriety.

Mission Academy’s record is enviable. Nationally less than 20 percent of young people suffering from addiction remain sober long term, even after inpatient substance abuse treatment. But when they go on to enroll in a sober high school like Mission Academy, that sobriety rate soars to 70 or 80 percent. Those who undergo intensive peer counseling as well maintain sobriety rates at or above 90 percent.

That can mean the difference between life and death.

Mission Academy is a nonprofit school, but it still must pay teachers, a drug and alcohol counselor, and other staff members. So students are charged tuition. And even though most can qualify for partial scholarship aid, Mission Academy is not free.

Currently, four of Mission’s 16 students qualify for Oklahoma’s voucher program (the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program). But the Henry Scholarship is only for special-needs students; it doesn’t benefit the other dozen students, most of whom will seek help from the school in the future.

Mission Academy also participates in Oklahoma’s other private-school choice initiative, our state’s tax-credit scholarship program. But it too is limited. By enacting a broader voucher or ESA program, our state’s political leaders would allow the school to rescue many more young people.

In this vein I’m reminded of Positive Tomorrows, Oklahoma’s only elementary school for homeless children. It too participates in Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program, but the school’s principal – heartbroken over having to turn away dozens of families every year – is also, unsurprisingly, among the state’s leading advocates for ESAs.

Schools like these are rescuing kids. Policymakers should help them rescue even more.