Time to make those voucher calls
Last week, when a House subcommittee was set to hear a bill that would have diverted our health insurance costs to salary, the #oklaed community called. We made thousands of calls. The bill, as of right now, will not be heard. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be resurrected as a committee substitute later this session, of course, but for now, it’s off the radar.
It was an idea that really didn’t make sense. Right now, we get a flex benefit allowance, pre-tax, with which to pay our HealthChoice costs. This plan would have given us, in time, the same amount, but fixed at a point in time. As insurance rates increased, our benefit would fail to cover it. We’d have more taxable salary, but even at the beginning, it would amount to a pay cut.
I don’t think we’ll see that bill again this year, but I’ve been watching politics long enough to know you can never say never. I believe this Legislature is bound and determined to find some way to pretend they’ve given teachers raises. (How about another tax cut? The last several have worked out marvelously!)
A proposal that does have more than a snowball’s chance, however, is House Bill 2949, authored by Representative Jason Nelson. This would create Education Savings Accounts, or vouchers as they’re more commonly known, that families could use to pay private school expenses. Before you ask, they could not be used for homeschooling expenses.
One of the frustrations I’ve always had with voucher proposals is that they typically lack the fiscal and academic accountability for the recipients that we face in public schools. Nelson’s bill is no different.
HB 2949 would require that recipients report to the state how the funds are used. In most cases, the entire voucher will go for private school tuition. That’s a one-line entry. The school will not have to account for the percentage of the cost that finds its way into the classroom, as we do in public schools.
School districts have to code all expenditure under the guidelines established by the state using the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System. It’s tedious, but that’s the price of transparency. All things considered, it’s a good thing. The public deserves to know where their money goes.
We won’t see that kind of detail from voucher recipeints and the schools that serve them.
HB 2949 would also require private schools to test their voucher students – but they wouldn’t be given the same criterion-referenced tests that Oklahoma’s public school students take. Instead, they would get to choose their own tests. The following paragraph is from page nine of the 22 page bill:
A parent shall renew the account of an eligible student on an annual basis by submitting a renewal request to the Department. The renewal request shall also include documentation showing the results of the student on a nationally standardized norm-referenced achievement test taken during that school year.
Voucher students will have to take a test – any test – well, any test that’s not part of the battery of exams Oklahoma public school students have to take. They don’t have to perform at any certain level. They don’t have to show growth. They just have to test. I suppose they would actually be able to choose the ACT and its suite of tests, or the SAT and its suite of tests if they wanted to. That’s something many of us have been pushing for public schools for years. Something about saving money and relevance comes to mind.
Private schools shouldn’t have to change who they are and what their core mission is to serve their students. They also shouldn’t be entitled to public school funds when they don’t have to accept all students or follow the same accountability measures.
One last feature of Nelson’s bill is that family income factors into who can qualify to receive a voucher. Although there are different levels of funding, eligibility begins at two times the threshold for qualifying for free/reduced lunch. For a family of four, that would be a household income of about $89,000. For a family of six, it would be about $120,000. Although families at the top end of this scale wouldn’t be entitled to the whole per-pupil amount that public schools receive, it’s fair to say that we would be providing private school subsidies to upper-middle class families.
Again, I have nothing against private schools. It’s just important to note that they don’t have to do the things we do. They don’t have to provide special education services. They don’t have to provide transportation to students. They don’t have to keep students who fail to live up to all the school’s expecatations. They don’t have to form reading sufficiency committees and complete mountains of paperwork on students who fail a test that isn’t really a reading test. They don’t have to over-explain why the A-F report card system is horriffically flawed.
Meanwhile, funding for public schools continues its free fall.
As Kevin Hime pointed out on Twitter today, all of the outrage we’re sharing amongst ourselves is fine. We need more than that. We need the kind of action we saw a few days ago with the health insurance bill.
The House Common Education Committee has plans to hear HB 2949 tomorrow. The committee meeting starts at 2:30. If your school district is out tomorrow for President’s Day, maybe you can make your way to Room 412 C at the Capitol. If you have time earlier in the day, maybe you can visit the committee members. You can also call them, email them, and tweet at them.
Before you start, though, please keep in mind that six of the committee members are listed as authors on the bill now. Their names are in red.
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Representative Coody is the committee chair. We definitely need to call her. Representative Rogers – the author of the insurance bill – is the vice-chair. He’s clearly voting for the bill, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t want to hear from his constituents again.
That leaves nine other committee members. We can’t take anything for granted. As Rob Miller pointed out last year around this time, the real push for vouchers is coming from outside the state. There’s no grass roots movement to do this for the children. This bill, and its Senate counterpart, carry the language of ALEC-prepared bills.
Last year, when Nelson’s bill died in committee, one Wisconsin lobbyist nearly lost his mind over it. He called it a failure of the leadership in the House. He called for people to lose committee chair assignments over it.
Again, this is some guy from Wisconsin telling our House leadership what to do.
Speaking of leadership, House Speaker Jeff Hickman and Speaker Pro Tem also have the right to show up and vote. If this turns into an 8 to 7 split, they could both enter the committee room and break the tie.
That’s why we need to know that all nine of the representatives in black (a) plan to show up for the vote, and (b) plan to vote no. When you speak to them, be respectful. Remember that it’s their job to serve their constituents, not interlopers with a cause. If you’re a parent or teacher, talk about your school. Talk about what makes the school you know and love a special place to learn. If you don’t know what to say about ESAs, you can look at this fact sheet that Moore Public Schools has put together or this one from CCOSA and its partner organizations.
You can even scroll back to the top and mention some of the things that I’ve written. I don’t want to put the words in your mouth, but I want to give you the information so that you can say it your own way.
Mainly, we need to contact the nine names not in red. I’ll also be contacting Hickman and Denney’s offices. We’ve done it before. We’ll have to do it again this session. You might as well put those numbers in your cell phone contacts.