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Small tuition-assistance steps in Oklahoma too big a jump for some in education

Editorial
The Oklahoman
Feb 1, 2012

THE latest report cards are out from the state's leading think tanks, one of which is oriented toward market solutions to problems and the other oriented toward government solutions.

What the scoring from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the Oklahoma Policy Institute have in common is the unflattering grades the state was given in several areas.

The OCPA cites an Education Week grade card giving Oklahoma a “D” for student performance and an American Legislative Exchange Council ranking that puts the state at 43rd among the 50 states in academics.

Meantime, the OPI cites a Corporation for Enterprise Development ranking that puts the state at 33rd in the ability of residents to build wealth and “fend off poverty.” One reason is that the state has poor rankings relative to most states in attainment of college degrees and in eighth-grade math and reading proficiency.

With all due respect to the advocacy groups and think tanks that do grading throughout the year, the report cards that matter the most are the ones issued for elementary and secondary school students. In that regard, if in no other, the right-leaning OCPA and the left-leaning OPI are in agreement: Education needs improvement.

How to get there, though, is where the roads diverge. One approach is increasing the options for nontraditional learning such as a private education funded at least partly with taxpayer dollars. This is the approach the OCPA favors. Its liberal counterpart urges instead more taxpayer funding of traditional public schools, particularly in high-poverty school districts.

The problem that many taxpayers have with this suggestion is that it hasn't paid off. Greater funding doesn't automatically lead to better results in the classroom. This is why the appeal remains strong to try something different, such as vouchers for private school tuition.

The counter-argument is that vouchers weaken public schools. Evidence for this argument is lacking. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that traditional schools aren't improving fast enough and that substantial funding increases won't help.

Increased funding for public schools would earn the state a better grade in report cards on per capita public education spending, teacher pay and a variety of other measures. But would it change outcomes on the report cards that matter the most, the ones issued to students? It's a question that taxpayers and policymakers have an obligation to ask but one that the public school establishment doesn't want to hear.

Oklahoma has taken baby steps toward school choice with tuition assistance for special-needs students and a tax credit for those who donate to a fund that doles out private school scholarships to eligible families. Even these small steps are giant leaps for the defenders of the status quo. Costly legal challenges are mounted. The school establishment doesn't like competition.

We do. Taxpayer-funded tuition assistance for private universities hasn't destroyed public universities. It wouldn't destroy public schools. It would likely have the opposite effect.

Who would benefit the most? Those who are now consigned to the aforementioned high-poverty school districts, those who have the most trouble fending off poverty.

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