School Choice in Obama's America and Our Oklahoma

April 13, 2009

Patrick B. McGuigan

In Barack Obama's America, there's good news and bad news for advocates of school choice. The same is true in Oklahoma.

Among the bad news is congressional action to kill the existing Washington, D.C. school vouchers program serving 1,700 underprivileged and mostly black students. But here's some good news: in mid-March, President Barack Obama told reporters, in comments reinforced by his press secretary, that the program should not be allowed to die.

The administration said, "It wouldn't make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system." It's not clear if President Obama's moves supporting recovery of the voucher program will come in the budget or the appropriations process, but a clear and positive signal was sent.

There was some other bad news in March, this time from Arizona. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that two state voucher programs-the Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program and the Displaced Pupil's Grant Program-violate the Blaine Amendment in Arizona's state constitution. Fortunately, the ruling doesn't affect Arizona's two tax credit programs, which were previously upheld by the state Supreme Court.

The Alliance for School Choice, in its latest study, reports that some 171,000 children in 10 states and D.C. are benefiting from private school scholarship programs. That's an 8 percent increase over 2008, and an 89 percent jump since 2004. The Alliance reported that 44 states considered private school choice measures in 2007-08, and six passed such laws.

Among the newest programs are those in Georgia and Louisiana, the latter an effort to reverse continued lethargy in New Orleans' schools. As has been the case in many states, the Louisiana program was pressed by Democrats, many of them African-Americans.

A swirling context, captured in the latest overview of choice from Dan Lips and Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation, is almost as important as the breaking news. A 2008 study from Harvard University reported that 65 percent of public school teachers support tax credits that could benefit both public and private schools. A third of the polled teachers support universal vouchers, with a slightly larger plurality opposed.

But wait, that's not all. The Heritage researchers say that studies of fiscal impact in choice programs between 1990 and 2006 found that the scholarships saved taxpayers $400 million nationwide because-as everyone in this field knows but seems reluctant to admit-the scholarship amounts per student are typically much lower than per-pupil public school expenditures. Florida's scholarship program saved taxpayers an estimated $39 million in 2007 alone, Lips and Burke say.

So, it was encouraging to learn from my colleague Brandon Dutcher's blog, Choice Remarks, that in spite of "facing a budget gap of $767 million, the state Senate ... passed legislation creating a $5 million scholarship tax credit program." It would "enable low-income students to attend private schools."

Encouraged? Don't be: "Alas, this took place in Indiana."

Here in Oklahoma, hope soared last year when a bipartisan Senate majority passed a scholarship proposal to allow students in failing public schools within the state's two largest districts to access scholarships to attend the school of their choice. The measure was killed in the state House, in part because a high number of rural Republicans joined a majority of Democrats in opposition.

This year, a similar measure died in a state Senate committee, where fiscal concerns drove the vote. But that might be penny wise and pound foolish-scholarship programs are less expensive for taxpayers than "regular" public school expenditures.

There's more: evidence of the positive effect of such programs on educational outcomes is mounting. In fact, voucher programs improve academic achievement in public schools, according to Dr. Greg Forster's analysis for the Friedman Foundation. Bottom line: Forster found that 16 of 17 empirical studies so far found vouchers have the effect of improving neighboring public schools.

Not a single study has ever found that vouchers harm public schools. Forster also reported the ways in which public systems are left with more resources per child still in the government system every time any child takes advantage of the private vouchers-because of lower costs in private systems and the money "left behind."

You don't have to go that far to understand the upside potential of choice for our state. The choice option should be racially neutral and focused on families, regardless of ethnicity, most in need of better schools. Still, it's worthwhile to consider the effect a targeted program of scholarships could have for Oklahoma's African-American children.

Lots of pavement-pounding in the last year has taught me that there are potentially thousands of beneficiaries for the kind of program approved in the Oklahoma state Senate last year, and killed in committee this year.

Deborah Brown of Tulsa is already educating 250 children in her charter school and private preschool. If the envisioned scholarship program existed, Brown says she could find the teachers and staff to serve another 300 kids-550 in all.

In Oklahoma City, Dr. Betty Mason is serving 110 students at the excellent St. John Christian Heritage Academy, also at the elementary level. If the scholarship program existed, she told me she could educate another 90 children-200 in all.

Dr. Donald O'Neil Tyler of Greater Grace Temple in Tulsa said a robust choice program would allow him to work with up to 100 north Tulsa boys, and that he would start with the toughest crowd-high school dropouts who are otherwise captured by the mean streets.

To sum up, three informed people on the front lines meeting educational and other needs project a minimum of 490 more black children, presently un-served or under-served, who could get a better education.

Tyler explained his motivation as a matter of faith, saying that for the church, "Our job is the whole person, that whole kid. We must step back into our role." Today, "We're in a circumstance where we allow the child to build his or her own character. That's scary."

Brown told me: "For too long the public school system has had a monopoly on education. Now, a monopoly can be good or bad, but in most cases and for the most past, it's bad. Education today in the public school system has basically deteriorated down to the bottom of the barrel."

That's a harsh, but informed, opinion. Why not give her a chance to prove she can do better?

OCPA research fellow Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is managing editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. He is the author of two books and the editor of seven. A state-certified teacher, for two years he taught middle-school and high-school students at a public charter alternative school.