Rejecting the proposition required several Republicans to vote against the bill. courtesy

Vouchers bill defeat a win for education

Funding unaccountable private institutions would be detrimental to Oklahoma public schools.

Last Wednesday, March 23, the Oklahoma Senate failed to pass Senate Bill 1647, titled the “Oklahoma Empowerment Act.” The bill would have given qualifying Oklahoma students the ability to opt out of public school enrollment and instead receive funds to spend on education-related expenses. The amount of money would depend on many factors, though a fiscal impact report projected a cost of between $3,5712.12 to $5,276.00 per student per year.

While the bill never uses the term “voucher,” the program uses state funds for students to utilize at private education institutions — the essence of a vouchers program.

The bill was narrowly rejected — 24 no votes and 22 yes votes. Three more yes votes would have passed the bill, and two of these could have easily come from absent senator Nathan Dahm, a supporter of the bill, and Senator Jake Merrick, who voted against the bill after supporting it in committee.

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt voiced his support for the bill, and lamented its failure to pass. He highlighted Oklahoma’s status as “49th in the nation in education,” as if bills targeting public education like SB1647 weren’t a prime cause of this sorry state. Stitt said that the state must “fund students over systems”; the “systems” he wishes to defund are the essential public schools.

Voucher programs have been implemented in several states and have had varying outcomes. A study of Florida’s voucher program has shown modest improvements in test scores and attendance, but newer studies of voucher programs in Louisiana, Ohio and the District of Columbia showed significant decreases in student performance, especially in mathematics. If the millions of dollars required for these vouchers would produce little result, why not just invest the funds directly into the existing public school system? The ongoing teacher shortage — which forced Oklahoma to give emergency certification to thousands of teachers — is a clear symptom of an underfunded system.

Senator Greg Treat, the original author of the bill, claimed that the $128 million the bill was estimated to cost would not come from existing state aid. Regardless of the accuracy of this claim, that money would still be in far better hands if it were allocated directly to Oklahoma public schools. If Oklahoma is ready to make such a significant investment in education, why direct it almost exclusively to private schools? The state of Oklahoma has no business funding private education institutions subject to far less oversight than public schools.

Bills like SB1647 that dismantle public education are usually justified by an appeal to “choice.” SB1647 itself states that “parents and legal guardians are best suited to make decisions” regarding their children’s education. However, what difference does choice make when all the schools are underfunded and inadequate? Oklahoma is currently ranked 46th for education spending; children receive a subpar education whether they choose a public, charter or private school.

The support for “school choice” legislation is often driven not by educators but interest groups with large pools of cash trying to influence public opinion. One of these groups, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, extensively supported and pushed SB1647. The OCPA isn’t required to disclose its funding sources, but these conservative interest groups are typically funded by those who stand to gain from further privatization. The opposition to the bill, in contrast, comes from actual educators. A poll by Oklahoma Professional Educators, a group of educators in Oklahoma, found 83% of members oppose the bill.

While the bill’s defeat is a victory for students, public education in Oklahoma is still in a desperate state. Stitt himself claimed that a voucher system “is eventually going to pass” into law in an interview after the bill was shot down. Republicans’ priority of “school choice” jeopardizes the importance of public schools and too often prioritizes private profits over student outcomes.

Post Author: Justin Klopfer