Monday, February 23, 2015

It's Your Money!

Weekly Opinion Editorial

by Steve Fair

     State Representative Jason Nelson, (R-OKC), and State Senator Clark Jolley, (R-Edmond) have introduced legislation to create Education Saving Accounts in Oklahoma that would allow parents to provide state money to seek alternatives to a public school education for their children even if the children do not have disabilities.  If passed, the state would have to deposit money for a child into the ESA based on family income and on how much money the public schools currently get for the child attending a public school.  Money in the account could be used for accredited on-line education, private schools or home schooling.  The monies could also be used to pay for textbooks, tutoring, and achievement tests. Two states, Florida and Arizona, already have similar programs.
      Rep. Nelson said that parents should be the ones making the decision on how their kids should be educated.  “There are parents all over the state who are just as desperate for their child to have a future but their limit is the school where they live, or the opportunities within that school,” Nelson said.
     The Senate version of the bill-SB #609- passed the Senate Education committee last Monday and now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Jolley chairs.  The Senate version would give parents a debit card with 80% of the amount that goes to the public schools on it.  Parents could use the money to home school their kids or to pay tuition to a private school.  If monies were left over, they could be applied toward the student’s college education. “It gives parents a choice rather than maintaining a monopoly,” Jolley said. 
     Not surprisingly, the public school community opposes the legislation.  Shawn Hime, Oklahoma State School Boards Association executive director said, “We are 100 percent opposed to it.  We spent a lot of time over the past decade talking about accountability and transparency of taxpayer dollars. This voucher proposal will also significantly decrease per pupil revenue for schools. They will pay for private and home school students that had never been a part of the public school funding system.  Now we want to set up a parallel system where taxpayer dollars can be spent for home school students and private school students that have no accountability.
    Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said “The problem is, if you take money away from the public school, even if you take one child out, you still have to pay the teacher, the electric bills, and run buses. You’ve still got all the expenses, but now you have less money. It may be called a savings account or a scholarship, but that’s putting lipstick on a pig,  It’s really just a school voucher program.”
    It’s time to give the people of Oklahoma true school choice.  Here are three reasons why.
    First, it’s their money.  It is not the legislature’s money.  It is not the public school’s money.  It is the taxpayer’s money.  In a poll conducted last July among 600 Republican voters statewide, 64% favored the creation of Education Saving Accounts.  That means that a clear majority of Oklahomans favor letting parents decide where their education dollar is spent.  In response to an inquiry from Capital Beat Oklahoma as to why she opposes Nelson’s bill, State Representative Ann Coody, (R-Lawton), who chairs the House Education Committee said, I believe that tax dollars should fund public schools.  Tax dollars do not belong to legislators but to the citizens of Oklahoma.  We are charged with representing our constituents to the best of our ability and according to the principles in which we believe.” 
     Second, public education is not putting out a good product.  That doesn’t mean we have bad teachers or even bad administrators.  It just means we have an inefficient, antiquated education model  in Oklahoma.  We have too many school districts.  We have too many buses and buildings, and electric bills. No one- educators, legislators, school boards- want to confront the elephant in the room, but at some point, it has to be addressed.  Spending for common education in Oklahoma has steadily increased in the past twenty years with no discernible improvement in student test scores.  That is because Oklahoma spends 52 cents of every common education dollar on non-classroom related activities.      
     Third, neither of the bills would significantly impact the per pupil revenue funding for schools.  Property tax revenue would still go to the local school district.  What would change would be the total amount a district gets from the state.  That would present a hardship to school districts who want to do the same thing they have done since 1950, but giving parents control of where their education dollar is spent will produce a better public school that will have to compete in the education marketplace.  That is how it works in the real world.

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