Home > Uncategorized > More on the Voucher Bill (Part I)

More on the Voucher Bill (Part I)

January 21, 2014

Since issuing a press release for the forthcoming school voucher bill, Rep. Jason Nelson has been all over Twitter engaging with various Oklahoma educators about it. While I often find his answers to be question-adjacent, and I usually disagree with him, he gets credit for being there and maintaining the conversation with critics.

One limitation of Twitter is that discourse is often stunted. I find 140 characters to be horribly inadequate. And then there’s the drive-by tweeting. I read an article this morning before leaving the house ant then shot off the following message…

…followed by this response from Nelson.

And then I didn’t have time to follow up. So I committed to writing this now gigantic blog post.

While I disagree with his assertion that I am somehow making a straw man argument, I do agree that the idea of his voucher plan should be discussed in terms of its merits and faults. Nicole Shobert held serve quite well with Nelson over the weekend in a lengthy Twitter exchange that unfortunately culminated with both of them accusing the other of changing the subject. Still as a fellow critic of vouchers, I do feel some of Nicole’s questions remain unanswered. That is true with some of the other conversations I saw today as well. So I will try to incorporate my concerns with those questions into my discussion of the voucher bill as well.

The first thing people need to do is read the text of proposed House Bill 3398 – it’s only 21 pages long, and most of that is double-spaced. If you’re responding to what you think is in it, rather than to what actually is, you probably serve neither side of the discussion well. Below is my summary of key points of the bill.


A. For a student who is determined to be an eligible student pursuant to subparagraph a of paragraph 7 of Section 3 of this act, the annual amount to be deposited to the education savings account for the student shall be as follows:

  1. If the total household annual income is equal to or less than the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, the amount granted to the account shall be equal to ninety percent (90%) of the total State Aid factors multiplied by the Grade Level Weight and the Student Category Weights that would be generated by that student for the applicable school year;
  2. If the total household annual income is greater than the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program but is less than one and one-half (1 1/2) times that amount, the amount granted to the account shall be equal to sixty percent (60%) of the total State Aid factors multiplied by the Grade Level Weight and the Student Category Weights that would be generated by that student for the applicable school year; and
  3. If the total household annual income is greater than one and one-half (1 1/2) times the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program but is less than two (2) times that amount, the amount granted to the account shall be equal to thirty percent (30%) of the total State Aid factors multiplied by the Grade Level Weight and the Student Category Weights that would be generated by that student for the applicable school year.

B. For a student who is determined to be an eligible student pursuant to subparagraph b of paragraph 7 of Section 3 of this act, the annual amount granted to the education savings account for the student shall be equal to thirty percent (30%) of the total State Aid factors multiplied by the Grade Level Weight and the Student Category Weights that would be generated by that student for the applicable school year.

Students will be means-tested for participation in the program. Any student taking a voucher will not receive the full state allocation. The remainder will cycle back into the funding formula, causing a slight increase to per-pupil funding amounts. The key word is slight.

Weighted state aid per pupil is $3,032 for the current school year. Keep in mind that different students carry different weights in the formula. Allocations are determined by WADM – Weighted Average Daily Membership. The SDE website has an updated WADM file for all districts (current as of last week). The last page of the file shows that the state has an ADM of 677,879.07 students but a WADM of 1,079,621.13 students. This means on average, that each student produces about 1.6 WADM. Run that through the formula, and we get an average of $4,851 in state aid per child.

Parents qualifying for and choosing a voucher would then receive something along the lines of $4,366 (90%), $2,911 (60%), or $1,455 (30%). Of course, given all the categories for which different weights are applied, those figures could be all over the place.

Not being familiar with private school costs, I did a little window shopping. Using the OSSAA classifications page as a guide, I selected the five largest private high schools in the state and compared tuition rates. I also selected two private schools from outside the OKC and Tulsa metro areas because I understand that there are some big differences among private schools.

School High School Tuition (not including fees)
Bishop Kelley $7,500 (+ $2,300 if non-Catholic)
Bishop McGuinness $8,350 (+ $3,350 if non-Catholic)
Mount St. Mary $7,800 (+ $1,500 if non-Catholic)
Victory Christian $6,058 (less for lower grades)
Metro Christian $9,265 (less for lower grades)
Oklahoma Bible Academy $5,600
Wesleyan Christian School $5,695 (less for lower grades)

I realize there are probably cheaper options in Oklahoma, that elementary costs will be lower as well, and that in some cases, schools will probably supplement the voucher amount with at least a little bit of need-based scholarship money. In many cases, though, even with a $4,400 chit from the state (I’m rounding for convenience), many students will not be able to attend private schools.

Acceptable Uses

a. tuition and fees to a participating private school, virtual school or virtual course-work provider, or eligible postsecondary institution,

b. purchasing, renting, or subscribing to a service that provides textbooks and other learning materials. Any funds from the sale of items purchased using the account funds shall be deposited into the account. Failure to deposit the proceeds may result in the removal of the student from the Program and forfeiture of the account balance,

c. educational therapies or services for the eligible student from a licensed or accredited practitioner or provider, including licensed or accredited paraprofessionals or educational aides. The State Board of Education shall promulgate rules defining which therapies and services are eligible under the Program and setting the required qualifications for paraprofessionals and aides,

d. tutoring services. The Board shall promulgate rules setting the required qualifications for tutors. Tutors shall be registered with the State Department of Education. Account funds shall not be used for tutors who are related to the student within the second degree of consanguinity,

e. curriculum for a complete course of study for a particular content area or grade level, including any supplemental materials recommended by the curriculum,

f. services provided by a public school, including individual classes and extracurricular programs,

g. fees for a nationally standardized norm-referenced achievement test, advanced placement examinations or any exams related to college or university admissions,

h. contributions to a Coverdell Savings Account established pursuant to 26 U.S.C., Section 530 for the benefit of the eligible student, except that money used for elementary or secondary education expenses shall be for expenses otherwise allowed by this act,

i. fees for management of the account by firms or institutions selected by the Treasurer, and

j. insurance or surety bond payments as required by the State Board of Education; and

The SDE gets to decide who can and who can’t tutor. And parents can pay fees to eligible management firms so they don’t have to handle the money themselves. I don’t like the sound of that. On the flip side, what isn’t allowed?

Unacceptable Uses

a. purchasing computer hardware, electronic equipment, assistive technological devices, or educational equipment or instruments. Nothing shall prohibit the renting of such items,

b. transportation of the student, and

c. consumable educational supplies including but not limited to paper, pens or markers.

In other words, parents can’t use their voucher for school supplies or transportation.


Participation of private schools in the Education Savings Account Program shall not expand the regulatory authority of the state or any school district to impose any additional regulation on private schools beyond those reasonably necessary to enforce the requirements expressly set forth in the Oklahoma Education Savings Account Act.

Let me get this straight. You’re going to use state money in private schools, most of which have a religious affiliation, but the state can’t impose rules over things like testing, cost expenditures, standards, and the like? Every school in every district in the state has to code every dollar spent according to the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System. This bill will require parents to submit quarterly reports of expenditures. The private schools accepting the funds will not have to account to the state for where the dollars are spent. This is how Nelson answered Jason James’s question about when private schools will have to report how they used their state aid.

That’s a thinker. Without saying as much, we now know that none of the same rules will apply to private schools. Is it possible that if we did away with the overly burdensome legislative and regulatory requirements that plague public schools, many of the students (and staff) would be happier there? Take away the testing, the state textbook committee, the burdensome reports, the unfunded mandates, the ever-increasing graduation requirements that limit the access students have to electives…and we’d all have a Merry Christmas.

As long as the private schools maintain instruction in the four core subject areas, they will not have adhere to the state’s adopted standards. And just as parents have no evidence going in that they will be putting their children in a better school, the state will have no evidence on the back end that the students learned. Remember, we have absolutely no data showing how private schools perform. After vouchers, we still won’t. Superintendent Barresi has repeatedly stated that if it matters, we should measure it.

Nothing about how the money will be spent is transparent. Nothing in the bill requires accountability. Remember, these are cornerstones of the reform agenda – but only for public schools.


Anytime a politician proposes a new law, I ask myself three fundamental questions:

  1. Does the solution address an actual problem?
  2. Who benefits most from this law?
  3. What are the unintended consequences?

Regarding this bill, here are my answers:

  1. The bill stands on the twin premises that we have too many children in poverty and that the schools they attend are largely failing them. I agree with the first part and disagree with the second. Even if the second were true, I don’t believe this bill fixes either situation. Yes, more than 60% of Oklahoma’s school children are eligible for free/reduced lunch. Even with vouchers that will be true. We know that much of Oklahoma’s school-age population moves around frequently. And we know from first-level data and regression analysis that our A-F Report Cards are better at finding poverty than achievement.
  2. I can see marginal benefits for students in poverty, but greater benefits for those families barely capable of putting their children in private schools. A partial voucher might also be a tipping point for those families interested in private school but teetering on the edge as far as finances go. I also see tutoring mills winning big with this law – as long as they get approval from the state. Private schools themselves also stand to benefit. Many – as their public counterparts understand – teeter on the edge financially. This could really help private schools that are barely making it. It could also spur new private schools coming into business.
  3. Public schools and private schools have very different missions. Sure, there’s some overlap to the Venn Diagram; both try to educate children. Public schools accept all children, however, and private schools – like charters – get to pick and choose. Unlike charters, however, private schools have no accountability or transparency. Since most of the private schools in Oklahoma are faith-based, they wouldn’t accept the government interference anyway. The worst thing about vouchers is that they redistribute children – middle-class and the rung just below that – to schools that the poorest of the poor still won’t be able to access. That family living on what constitutes twice the threshold for free/reduced lunches might be able to use $1,455 to offset some tuition costs. Meanwhile, a family living well below that point might not have the ability to take the $4,400 and change anything.

Another time-tested Nelsonism is to ask anyone who dares to question him about money to give him an amount – How much is enough? The answer, of course is that it varies. We’ll never know how much is enough because the legislature will never provide it anyway.

There’s my case based on the merits of the bill. No, they’re not too much for me. I would never avoid a debate that is topical. As for your straw man argument… that’s another five page post for another day.


  1. January 21, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Thank you! I had to turn off twitter last night. I was getting lost and confused and ready for bed. I do not like holding twitter conversations, although I am impressed that Rep Nelson sticks around. I think he has good intentions but gets his material from the wrong sources, like ALEC.
    Great post. But I did not realize the per pupil was that low. I saw a figure from 2010 that I thought was 8000$. Hmm.
    Ironically, my family qualifies for the 30% savings account. It could help us over that edge. Maybe if Barissi is re-elected…


    • January 21, 2014 at 8:48 pm

      My reading of the bill only accounts for state aid, which I believe is now less than 50% of all district revenue.


  2. January 21, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    You shine the light on some key points. (1) Most families in poverty will not have the capacity to “make up the difference;” (2) most will not be able to provide transportation; (3) private schools will not be held to same mandates or accountability; and (4) private schools can pick and choose their students. The more I read about programs like KIPP, the more upset I get. If we tried to treat students like they do, we would be sued.

    Most private schools in OK have very selective application processes. I do not anticipate them accepting many of these high needs students. However, I would not be surprised if our old friend Damon Gardenhire didn’t swoop in with some Walmart schools to fill the gap.


  3. Kevin Hime
    January 21, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Great post!! I agree with Rob on the WalMart schools I would also like to add I do not believe it is school choice when some get to select their students and others do not


  4. January 21, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Interesting thoughts…I’m unwilling to debate the merits or demerits of ALEC as right now (I tend to hate them for reasons other than yours I suspect, but hate them I do), but I did a recent article on Arizona’s ESA’s for School Reform News (http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/08/26/study-how-get-next-gen-vouchers).

    I look at this argument of ‘vouchers’ as a taxpayer issue. i am in no way against public schools. I believe public education to be part and parcel of our American heritage. Here’s where I have the beef; If I pay taxes to a public school that doesn’t work for my family, if I have money to burn, I put my kids in private school and don’t think twice about it. If I’m cash strapped, I’m stuck in the crummy school. I can home school, but only if our family can make it on one income. If I can’t, I’m stuck in the crummy school. Even then, say you are able to homeschool (as I now do all three of my kids still at home) – I’m not paying for a private school education, but I still have expenses; books, tutoring, online classes, activities, etc. Why should I pay twice? Granted, we pay sometimes 4x for things in taxes these days, but does that make it right? I’m not going to go out and willfully pay for something that isn’t going to benefit myself and/or my family, but I will be forced by the state to do just that. I don’t see how that isn’t criminal, frankly. If I went to someone’s house with a gun and told them they had to buy a car with a shot transmission, I wonder what would happen.

    “Back in the day”, public schools were begun and run by churches, then communities – it wasn’t until the 1950’s that public schools became state-run institutions and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that they became beholden to the federal government. Why we accept state-run over church-run or community-run public schools, I honestly can’t figure out. It’s easier to get a check from the state than to have to find volunteers or financiers for sure, but is that the right reason for the state to run public education?

    I have not read Nelson’s full bill, but what you have described is a ‘voucher’ bill. I despise these. They are full of inequities which are supposedly the reason a state has to pass a voucher bill in the first place (to right social inequities). It doesn’t matter if you’re in a crummy school system and you want to do something else with your children, if you have ‘too’ much money, you’re just supposed to be happy to pay twice – it’s somehow your duty. The ESA’s in Arizona allow everyone who pays into the system to get their money back and spend it as they see fit for their family. If it’s public school, great. If it’s private or home school, great. For those that don’t pay into the system, they have ‘corporate sponsors’ if you will. Businesses and individuals who wish to volunteer to pay into the system (donate) are given taxbreaks for their benevolence – just like any regular taxpayer who itemizes would get when they file their income taxes.

    No, this method does not provide a 100% safety net. I know of nothing in life – even life itself – that provides a 100% safety net. Maybe, if parents were forced into actually paying (back) something for their schooling instead of getting it ‘free’ from the state (taxpayers), they would actually appreciate it and participate. Maybe they would actually treat the system with respect instead of entitlement. Maybe the idea that kids could go to whatever school worked for them would actually instill a form of innovation in education and teaching that is bred out of our overburdened system.

    Sadly, I have no actual answers as to whether or not this system would work, but local (community/church run) public schools have always been a dream of mine and, after all, I can dream!


    • March 11, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Well said ropeok…and you are not alone in your view of how schools have and could be run….and that those choosing options outside of public school should not have to pay twice. Theses families should be refunded fully in the amount of “per student” expenditures for each child they don’t have in public school, in my humble opinion.
      To expound upon your idea, I believe that the monopoly of public schools should be turned on its head. Almost any time you have a monopoly on a good or service, the cost rises and the quality decreases. There should be competition in the marketplace and that could take many forms. There can still be some standards and truancy laws because that is in the interest of our state and our citizens to do so. Outside of that, I believe a lowering of taxes, school location/curriculum choice for parents, performance-based pay for teachers and employees, and a free market of schools (by grade, by subject, by curriculum in higher grades, or in other ways) will decrease cost and increase the quality. I also believe that great teachers will shine in this scenario and should be paid accordingly. It is a transitional strategy, of course, and one where lower income areas/homes can be addressed in a number of ways. Perhaps they maintain a “public” school longer. Perhaps there are government incentives (tax-free) and support for charitable non-profits to raise funds for funding low income communities. Perhaps there is a plan for adoption of these communities by business and/or charities….or some combination of all of these things.

      I believe better education comes from getting out of the current “public school”, state-run education box. Yes, I am probably in the minority but we get nowhere by doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.


  5. January 23, 2014 at 7:33 am

    My name is Collin Walke, and I am running for Oklahoma House District 87 (against Jason Nelson). I came across your blog while researching Rep. Nelson’s most recent attempt to curtail funding for public education. I simply wanted to say thank you for such a thoughtful and concise explanation and critique of his proposed bill.


  6. Rick Barcus
    February 1, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    As a taxpayer who attended public school, albeit in the 60’s, I am opposed to using my tax dollars to support private schools. If you want your child in that setting, write the check. We have a Legislature that is more about scoring points with their contributors and jockeying to keep their House or Senate seat instead of prioritizing the needs of its citizenry. As a potential constituent, I’m glad to see you take on the current representative.


  1. January 21, 2014 at 10:46 pm
  2. January 22, 2014 at 10:21 pm
  3. January 24, 2014 at 8:48 am
  4. January 25, 2014 at 6:10 pm
  5. February 20, 2014 at 7:01 am
  6. February 1, 2015 at 6:29 pm
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