Here Come the Vouchers
National School Choice Week ™ started early in Oklahoma. Late this afternoon, the Oklahoma House of Representatives issued this press release:
Lawmakers Unveil Education Savings Account Act
State Rep. Jason Nelson
OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation that would provide education options to families across Oklahoma was unveiled today at a press conference at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Under House Bill 3398, by state Reps. Jason Nelson and Tom Newell, low-income public school students would be able to receive a portion of the state aid dedicated to their education and use it to expand their education options.
“This is an exciting and timely proposal that will help address one of our state’s most pressing and challenging problems – the effects of poverty on our families,” said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. “Two thirds of the births of children in our state are paid for by Medicaid. More than 60 percent of the public school students in our state are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Educators I’ve talked to say that students living in poverty present the greatest challenge in our education system. This bill would begin to help these children and help schools with one of their greatest challenges.”
“If you are a parent who has the means to pay for education alternatives, you have true freedom over how your child is educated,” said Newell, R-Seminole. “If you have a lower income, your options are more limited. This legislation is about expanding those options for low-income families.”
Under the legislation, students eligible for free or reduced price lunch under federal guidelines would be eligible to receive 90 percent of the funding they would have generated at their resident public school through the school funding formula. Students in families whose household income is up to 1.5 times the threshold for free or reduced price lunch will be eligible to receive 60 percent of the amount they would have generated through the formula. Students in families whose household income is between of 1.5 times to 2 times the threshold will be eligible to receive 30 percent of what would have been generated through the formula.
The education savings account money could be used for tutoring, virtual school, higher education courses and private schools, Nelson said.
“There is not a private school in every community,” Nelson said. “But there are alternative options to be found in every community.”
The president of a non-profit Oklahoma City school for impoverished and homeless children applauded the legislation.
Susan Agel, president of Positive Tomorrows, said the legislation could provide some funding for her students. Positive Tomorrows serves children who are homeless or in really difficult living situations.
“The Oklahoma City public school district estimates that there are about 2,000 homeless children in that school district,” Agel said. “There are a number of them that are really living in some difficult situations. Those are the children that we can do the most for. So far this year, we’ve turned away about 50 kids. We’ve done this because we have a lack of space in our building and because of staffing considerations.
“Every child that we take relieves some pressure on the burdened public school system who has to be all things to all children. We can take children who need some special care and we can take care of those kids and in the end we can save everybody a lot of money.”
Dr. Cris Carter, the superintendent of Oklahoma City Catholic Schools, said the Catholic Church has historically been an option for immigrants and the poor.
“We believe we have much to offer families who desire not only strong academics, but also a community rooted in a message of love and hope,” Carter said. “Representative Nelson’s previous legislation for special needs students has already begun to bear fruit. I have witnessed its impact most significantly at Good Shepherd Catholic School at Mercy, our school for children with autism.”
Lauren Marshall, member of the National Board on Public School Options and Tulsa resident, said parents need options.
“There are not enough school options right now for parents,” Marshall said. “This legislation will expand those options and we are grateful for Representative Nelson’s work on behalf of parents.”
Pam Newby, executive director of Special Care, also spoke in support of the legislation.
“This bill is incredibly important to our families,” Newby said. “Most of our families are single parents with children who have respiratory issues, or learning disabilities, or autism. They desperately need an education plan that is not one-size-fits-all. Education should not be one-size-fits-all.”
Authors will use every tool at their disposal to convince the public that this is not a voucher program – it’s a Savings Account. See, it’s right there in the title?
Don’t be fooled by such a ridiculous semantic ploy. Vouchers take money from heavily regulated public schools and release them to unregulated private schools, which in turn do not face the stream of accountability measures so cherished by ALEC and the rest of the corporate reform movement. If this legislation passes and survives the inevitable legal challenges, the public will never know whether it was money well-spent.
Research is mixed on the outcome of vouchers in other states. Think tanks supporting vouchers have found that they make a huge impact. Under scrutiny, the methodology of those reports usually falls apart.
I also have a problem with the last line of the press release. The same people responsible for increasing the frequency and duration of standardized testing have no credibility making statements such as, “Education should not be one-size-fits-all.” It fails the logic test.
Ultimately this act would do a lot more for families in urban and suburban areas than it does for those in rural areas. As the authors mention, not every student lives in an area with a viable private school option. They offer up virtual school as a choice. Don’t buy it. The legislature already made that choice available to kids two years ago. Without any further legislation, any student in Oklahoma already has the option to attend school virtually.
Don’t be fooled by the label. This isn’t what they want you to think it is.