Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Small: Private school critics ignore reality

Private school critics ignore reality
By Jonathan Small

School-choice opponents have tried, and failed, to convince parents to oppose policies that grant greater educational opportunity to their children.

So now school-choice opponents have a new tactic: They’re urging Oklahomans to ignore reality.

Under the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act, all families in Oklahoma are now eligible for refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to pay for private-school tuition. The lower a family’s income, the larger the tax credit. The program takes effect in January.

As we near the half-way mark of the current school year, many private schools are determining their tuition rates for the coming 2024-2025 school year, which begins next August. Catholic schools, in particular, have announced tuition increases that exceed prior-year norms (although most families will still pay less out of pocket thanks to the tax credit).

Thus, school-choice critics are claiming the tuition increases are due solely to the existence of the tax credits.

Here’s a reality check.

From 2017 to 2022 (the most recent for which full data is available), Oklahoma’s public-school population grew only 0.7% but per-pupil revenue increased 37.6%. Further increases were provided this year, including public-school teacher pay raises of $3,000 to $6,000 based on experience, which came on top of average state pay increases of $7,200 since 2018.

When some public-school teachers have their salaries increased $13,000 in that time span, it means private schools must also offer higher compensation, and that can increase tuition. (Do school-choice opponents oppose teacher pay raises?)

School-choice critics are also ignoring the financial reality staring everyone in the face: Biden-era inflation is driving up the cost of everything.

What $1 bought in 2020 now requires $1.19. What $5,000 dollars purchased in 2020 now requires $5,946. That’s a cumulative price increase of 18.92%.

Ask yourself: Do you think private-school tuition is increasing primarily because of a tax-credit program, but not historic levels of financially devastating inflation? The answer is obvious.

Even with tuition increases next year, the rates at most Oklahoma private schools are expected to still be less than public schools’ per-pupil funding. And thanks to the tax credit, the out-of-pocket cost will be lower and more affordable for countless families, including low-income households.

Total spending on public K-12 education in fiscal year 2022 was just over $9 billion. That averaged $12,967 per student. Next year’s per-pupil number is expected to be at least $14,000 per student and likely greater after accounting for increased funding from all sources. That $14,000 figure exceeds anticipated tuition at many Oklahoma private schools for 2024-2025.

Critics who suggest private-school tuition should remain flat in this economic environment are talking nonsense. The school-choice tax credit program is opening the door of opportunity for children, especially those from lower-income homes, and should be celebrated.

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


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