Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Small: Talking points against school choice don't hold up

Talking points don’t hold up
By Jonathan Small

In education, two talking points are constantly touted by status-quo defenders. First, if we spend more money on the state-run public-school system, our negative education outcomes will make a turnaround. Second, most families don’t need other choices because they are already “choosing” their local public school.

Neither talking point holds up—as two status-quo defenders recently acknowledged (even if unintentionally).

We are constantly told that Texas poaches our best teachers with higher pay and spends more per-pupil in its public schools. Thus, it’s worth asking: How’s that working out? The answer, according to one Texas Democratic lawmaker, is, “Not well.”

During an April 11 meeting of the Texas House Public Education Committee, Texas state Rep. James Talarico, a former public-school teacher and Democrat, declared, “Right now, we have a historic teacher shortage in our state. We have teachers who are working a second job driving Ubers at night to pay the bills. We have teachers leaving the profession at a record rate. We have historic learning loss in our state after COVID. We have an escalating mental-health crisis.”

Talarico went on to say that “the sky is falling in Texas public schools.”

Increase public-school funding without providing robust school choice and you get the same problems—just at a higher cost.

But most families just want public schools, right?

Maybe not.

During a February committee meeting, state Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, declared that most families go to public schools primarily because they cannot afford private-school tuition.

“The everyday person really can’t afford that. That’s why they go to public schools,” Goodwin said. “So, it’s not like they’re choosing to go to a public school. It’s like they wanted their folks to be educated. The school is in the neighborhood. It’s free. Would you agree that’s probably why most folks, probably 90 percent of our children, go to public schools—because it’s there and it’s free?”

These two Democratic lawmakers both defend the status quo, one in Texas and the other here in Oklahoma. But both inadvertently make the case for universal school choice.

It isn’t just parents and students who win by finding the best educational setting—it’s teachers and schools, too. And when families can leave a local public school, that school is more likely to consider their needs. All this means schools will be more likely to put the money they do have to better use, focusing on students and educational outcomes.

If policymakers want to move the needle on education, something like the refundable tax credit now being debated at the Oklahoma Capitol needs to be in the mix—for any family that chooses to use it. Otherwise, we face higher costs for the same poor outcomes while many Oklahoma families have no real choices to help their children learn and thrive.

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


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