Monday, April 17, 2023

Small: Means-testing education?

Means-testing education?
By Jonathan Small

Here’s a quick thought experiment. There are two proposals to fund K-12 education. With one, families would get up to $7,500 for a child’s education. In another, families would receive nearly $13,000 per child in educational services. Some lawmakers want an “income cap” on one of these programs, to limit which families can use it. Can you pick which one?

It’s not the $13,000 one—nobody is suggesting a limit there. The income cap would apply only to the $7,500 option.

This is because the $13,000 per child is for the traditional public school system. (According to data from the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System, the average taxpayer-funded per-student expenditure for Oklahoma public schools is $12,967.)

In contrast, a proposed $7,500 tax credit for families who don’t use that system, but instead choose a private school, would be denied to some students based on income.

This results in nonsensical outcomes. Take Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who has a reported net worth of $177 billion. If Bezos moved to Oklahoma and had school-age children, he could send them to an Oklahoma public school at no cost, receiving the full benefit of $13,000 per child.

But if Bezos declined that benefit and instead opted for the $7,500, he would not qualify.

Keep in mind, providing an education for $7,500 instead of $13,000 results in lower costs to taxpayers. It makes no sense to offer a billionaire $13,000, but not a $7,500 alternative.

Yet that is the argument some legislators have made.

They don’t make this argument about other programs. K-12 education access, higher education access, roads and bridges, law enforcement, the judiciary, and other government services or programs are not means tested in order to use them. The state’s film subsidies don’t go only to productions with less than $250,000 in revenue. Other business incentives are not limited only to companies with less than $250,000 in revenue.

For that matter, we won’t restrict this year’s proposed teacher pay raise, which could reach $6,000, to only those from households with income below a certain level—claiming those teachers’ households “don’t need the money.” (The combined spousal income of some such households can easily place them in the top half of Oklahoma earners.)

This is the result of a class-warfare mentality. Policymakers say the state “can’t afford” to fund quality education options, while giving huge tax breaks for non-educational purposes to individuals and entities that have millions.

If Oklahoma’s state and local governments are going to extract billions from all Oklahomans and the economy for the purpose of K-12 education, shouldn’t policymakers do it in a manner that allows parents and guardians options so they can choose the best academic and worldview-shaping option they deem best? Especially when their choice will cost taxpayers a lot less?

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


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