Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Small: Statewide, parents are sending message on school choice

Statewide, parents are sending message on school choice
By Jonathan Small

I’ve recently noted that voters have sent a message on school choice by overwhelmingly electing its supporters to statewide and legislative offices. But Oklahoma parents have separately sent an equally loud message by voting with their feet and pocketbooks.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Oklahoma public schools began the current 2022-2023 school year with 701,258 students. That remains below the pre-pandemic figure of 703,650 in the 2019-2020 school year.

Put another way, we’re almost three years removed from the start of COVID and public-school enrollment has yet to rebound to its pre-pandemic norm, let alone match the enrollment-growth rate from the decade prior to COVID.

What’s more, public-school enrollment remains lower than it was three years ago even though Oklahoma’s population continues to grow. Back-of-the-envelope math suggests that at least 13,000 children have quietly shifted out of public schools to alternatives such as private schools and homeschooling.

Parents are sending a message by pursuing those alternatives in lieu of a “free” education.

This is happening statewide. It’s not shocking that the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts lost enrollment, but decline has occurred in urban, suburban and rural schools all across the state. Of the more than 500 public-school districts, more than 300 reported lower enrollment in the current 2022-2023 school year than in 2019-2020.

Clearly, there is strong appetite for school choice, and the share of parents who have already departed the public system is likely just a fraction of those who would like to do so, since pursuing these alternatives can come at significant personal expense for many lower-and-middle income families.

If Oklahoma policymakers expand school-choice programs, particularly by authorizing Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts that allow at least $3,619 in per-pupil state education funding to follow a child to private school, there’s little doubt the share of children shifted to private schools would increase significantly.

Opponents dismiss that $3,619 as insignificant. It’s not. While that sum may not cover the full cost of private-school tuition, it can make private school viable for many working families, as proven by the experience of many recipients of the existing Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities program, which allows adoptive children and those with special needs to use some tax dollars allotted for a child’s education to pay for private-school tuition.

Also, private-school tuition is often less, and sometimes far less, than the per-pupil amount spent in public schools.

Opponents claim such a program would be “unfair” to public schools. In response, ask yourself this. Which is more unfair? For a parent to have to take out a second job to pay tuition to ensure their child receives a truly good education, or for schools to have to compete for students?

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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