| September 13, 2010

Use Vouchers to Raise Oklahoma's Per-Pupil Expenditures

The debate over State Question 744 has focused attention on Oklahoma’s relatively low level of per-pupil education funding. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that Oklahoma currently ranks 48th nationally (49th if you include the District of Columbia) in per-pupil education funding—well below the national and regional averages.

Not surprisingly, education proponents argue that Oklahoma should do more for its students and enact policies to close the funding gap. Opponents argue that the only way to increase the per-pupil funding level is either to raise taxes or to cut spending on other government programs. Interestingly, though, this isn’t completely true. There is one other way to raise per-pupil funding without impacting other government programs or raising taxes—by instituting a school voucher program.

In 2008-09 Oklahoma education funding averaged $8,006 per student. This figure, though, is based only on the number of students enrolled in public schools. If Oklahoma were able to shift more students from public to private schools, state funding would be spread out over fewer students, thereby raising the per-pupil average. Of course, the only way to shift large numbers of students from public to private schools is to help pay for private school tuition—a cost that offsets some of the gains. However, if structured correctly, a voucher system could still generate cost-savings for the state, allowing it to raise per-pupil spending.

For example, last year I proposed my own school voucher program for Oklahoma—one that would provide a $3,000 tuition scholarship for every K-12 student attending an accredited private school. To pay for the scholarships, each school district would see their allocations fall by $3,000 for every student they lose to a private school. This means, though, that the remaining $5,006 can be redistributed to the remaining students enrolled in the public school. Essentially, this program allows schools to outsource the education of some students (to the private schools) to free up more resources for the remaining public school students.

The numbers don’t lie: if education proponents really want to increase per-pupil spending, they should embrace a school voucher program.

A self-described “centrist Democrat,” Mickey Hepner (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is an economics professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.

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