Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Op-ed: Is School Choice a conservative idea - or a progressive long-game?

The following op-ed was submitted by Carrie Bertrand. Carrie is a conservative political activist, a founding board member of the Constitutional Home Educators Alliance, and homeschooled two children for eighteen years.

Is School Choice a conservative idea or a progressive long-game?

How could any thinking person oppose “school choice?” – or so goes the familiar argument. 

The debate continues this year, like last, in the Republican-majority state legislative session just begun, as school choice – also known as school vouchers, and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) – stirs intense conflict. The Left opposes school vouchers because they take money from public school funding; true conservatives don’t like vouchers because they expand government and threaten the autonomy of private and home education.

Our state Constitution says “The Legislature shall, by appropriate legislation, raise and appropriate funds for the annual support of the common schools of the State…..” Are private schools or home schools, common schools that the State should be funding? According to our state Constitution, no. Full stop. 

A farmer named Pete with a small cattle farm pays nearly $14,000 in property taxes that he expects to go to his local school district for the education of the school age students in that district. However, Pete has no children in the local school, nor has he ever.  

His neighbor John down the street in the same district has eight homeschool children and lives on a regular lot in a small house. John pays only a few hundred dollars in property taxes, but John could receive nearly $30,000 in school voucher funds based on Senator Greg Treat’s bill filed last year. It didn’t pass, but it’s coming back. 

Their math is fuzzy. Gov. Kevin Stitt wants an even higher per-pupil amount, though I haven't seen an amount written in a bill. A home-educating family, or a family that sends their children to private school, are not factored into the per-pupil funding for their local school district. However, when a homeschool or private school family receives money, a large part comes out of their local district’s funding. Furthermore, it is estimated that about 35,000 students are in private and home education: what happens when they are the first in line for school vouchers, yet they haven’t  been factored into the original funding?

Some of our legislators, and a few outside groups, use trite mantras like “fund the students, not the systems” or “the money should follow the child” or my favorite, “we won’t accept vouchers if strings are attached.” They even go so far as to say that this promotes competition and free market. It is lost on me how redistributing government money creates a free-market system. The surest competition is going to be between vendors that are approved by the government to receive these funds from a family’s ESA account. So really, the government is choosing the winners and losers. 

Private and Christian schools can expect to eventually lose their autonomy. Sweden instituted a  comprehensive school voucher program for public and private schooling, and a few years later  they banned Bibles from being used in school. Faith-based schools will be at risk of being able to teach and hire according to what they believe. Do Christian schools want to take this risk by taking government money? The money will certainly follow the child, right into the private school and home. And more than likely, a government agent will soon follow to make sure the  taxpayer dollars are being used according to the government mandates.  

In short, vouchers are based on the redistribution of wealth. Families that would have never considered taking a handout from the government, will do so claiming that they are simply getting back what is theirs. Unfortunately, once our taxes have been rendered unto the  government, it comes back as government money. The better option is for families to get to keep their hard-earned money in the form of a credit for each of their school-aged children. This is  better than a family taking from their neighbors, and their local school district – especially if that  amount exceeds what they themselves have paid in property taxes.  

We already have school choice in Oklahoma. At least 10 options exist in Oklahoma! A family can chose to send their child to their local public school, enroll in a public-school-at-home program that their district offers or utilize one such as EPIC; they can transfer between districts when an opening is available; their child can attend a charter school, or a charter school online; they can go to a private school or a private school online; they can also home-educate their children themselves, or do a private school/homeschool hybrid. This debate isn’t about choice, we have more choice than any other state! This is about who pays for the choices parents make. 

This is just the big picture, but the devil is in the details. Maybe we need to let it play out longer  in other states before Oklahoma jumps on the bandwagon. When the government starts funding  things, those things often become more expensive. Just look at the cost of higher education.  

Take a line-by-line look at Shane Jett’s Senate Bill 943 and Senator Daniels’ SB822. There are a lot more costs than just passing out an undefined amount of voucher money. How will the Treasury department approve educational vendors? Will they ask the Education Department to advise them? How much will they spend on the private financial management firm that they can contract to administer the ESAs? How will fraud and kickbacks be prevented? What is to keep a vendor from raising its prices since the government will foot the bill? What will this cost the state? Does every Oklahoma student regardless of income or quality of their local school district  get to receive funds? 

We need to improve our government education but having the government in every form of  education while taking money out of the public school system is not the answer.  

Carrie Bertrand

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! And spot on. It is NOT a conservative position to grow government, and this government funding private options is a massive increase in power and size of government. I didn't pull my boys out of the public school to have government follow them to my home! I wouldn't take one dime! or a Trillian!


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