Monday, April 14, 2008

New Hope: Answering the critics

Last week lobbyists for the public school establishment circulated a memo entitled "SB 2093—Oklahoma Education Voucher Bill." Below in bold are their assertions, followed by responses from OCPA, an independent think tank.

The education establishment claims that "tuition tax credits or vouchers for private schools undermine the principles of public education by encouraging the enrollment of children in private schools."

SB 2093, the New Hope Scholarship Act is not a "voucher" bill. Vouchers allow parents to use all or part of the government funding set aside for their children’s education to send their children to a private school. The New Hope Scholarship Act is not a "tuition tax credit" bill, either: it does not provide a tax credit for the payment of your child’s tuition. Rather, the New Hope Scholarship Act is a "scholarship tax credit" bill: it provides a tax credit for those who donate to a philanthropic organization providing tuition assistance for low-income children trapped in the worst of the worst urban schools. Scholarship tax credit laws of this sort already exist in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

The New Hope Scholarship Act does not "undermine the principles of public education." Public education means the education of the public. Just because government provides for education doesn’t mean government has to produce all of it. Are the principles of Medicaid undermined because patients use a private hospital? Are the principles of national defense undermined because the government doesn’t build its own tanks and missiles?

The education establishment claims that the "tuition tax credit proposal in the New Hope Scholarship Act represents an abandonment of Oklahoma’s public schools."

There are 627,575 students in Oklahoma’s public schools. Total revenue is $4.68 billion. A program which affects roughly 0.16 percent of students and 0.05 percent of revenue can scarcely be called an "abandonment" of Oklahoma’s public schools. As New Hope proponent Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre, a 16-year veteran of the Tulsa Public Schools board of education, put it: "No one, no one has been more of a supporter of public education than I have."

The education establishment claims that "tuition tax credits or vouchers divert public funds to private entities with absolutely no accountability."

This is false on both counts. First, as explained above, the New Hope Scholarship Act is a scholarship tax credit bill. And it is replete with accountability measures both for the scholarship-granting organization and for the private school, which must be accredited and must ensure "academic accountability to parents and guardians of students."

Secondly, there are no "public funds" involved. As the Arizona Supreme Court ruled—and the U.S. Supreme Court let stand—in 1999: "According to Black’s Law Dictionary, ‘public money’ is ‘[r]evenue received from federal, state, and local governments from taxes, fees, fines, etc.’ As respondents note, however, no money ever enters the state’s control as a result of this tax credit. Nothing is deposited in the state treasury or other accounts under the management or possession of governmental agencies or public officials. Thus, under any common understanding of the words, we are not here dealing with ‘public money.’"

The defenders of the status quo argue that the government would collect more revenue if the New Hope tax credit didn’t exist, and therefore the money that people donate to K-12 scholarship funds is government money. By that way of thinking, a citizen’s entire paycheck is government money, and citizens should be thankful that benevolent politicians let them keep any of it. "Under such reasoning all taxpayer income could be viewed as belonging to the state because it is subject to taxation by the legislature," the Arizona Supreme Court ruled. "We cannot say that the legislature has somehow imposed a tax by declining to collect potential revenue from its citizens."

"Make no mistake about it," the education establishment claims, "SB 2093 is a voucher bill."

Just as food stamps allow recipients to take those certificates and spend them at the grocery store of their choice, school vouchers (education stamps, if you will) allow parents to take government money and spend it at the school of their choice. There are currently 14 school voucher programs operating in nine states plus the District of Columbia. And while a voucher bill in Oklahoma would be worthy of debate on its own merits, SB 2093 is simply not a voucher bill.

"This bill is simply the first step," the education establishment claims, "in diverting money away from public schools and placing government funds in private school coffers."

As explained above, there are no government funds involved. But even if government funds were involved, the New Hope Scholarship Act would hardly be the "first step." The first step—and the second, third, fourth, and subsequent steps—were taken long ago. Whether educating toddlers or 20-year-olds, public dollars flow to Oklahoma private schools all the time. To cite just a handful of examples: government funds flow to private pre-K providers; Title I money flows to private schools; NCLB’s "supplemental services" dollars flow to private schools and tutors; taxpayer funds flow to private vendors who provide online high-school courses; and Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, OTEG grants, and OHLAP money goes to private colleges and universities in Oklahoma.

The education establishment claims that "ranked at 48th in the nation in per-pupil funding for our schoolchildren, Oklahoma cannot afford further erosion of the funds available for public schools."

The establishment’s concern for "per-pupil funding" is admirable. Fortunately, under SB 2093, per-pupil funding increases by approximately $38.

The education establishment claims that "this proposal can have a negative fiscal impact of up to $5 million per year and will take money out of the formula. The argument that it will only affect low-performing districts is not true. The effects will be felt statewide as this represents another way to shrink the pie of available funding."

As Dr. Susan Aud explains, "When a student uses school choice, the local public school district no longer needs to pay the instructional costs associated with that student, but it does not lose all of its per-student revenue, because some revenue does not vary with enrollment levels. Thus, school choice produces a positive fiscal impact for school districts as well as for state budgets. ... Instructional spending per student has consistently gone up in all affected public school districts and states. School choice has not prevented those states and districts from spending more on the students who remain in public schools."

The education establishment points out that "a family of four in Oklahoma or Tulsa counties can make over $95,000 and qualify for these ‘low-income family’ tax credits."

It’s unlikely that the students trapped in these persistently failing schools will have that much family income, but it really doesn’t matter. Children trapped in the worst of the worst urban schools deserve a way out, regardless of their family’s income.

"Private schools aren’t accountable to any oversight organization," the education establishment argues. "There are no guarantees these schools will produce the results that are intended."

There are, however, guarantees that the public schools at issue are not producing the results that are intended. That’s how they ended up on the "needs improvement" list for three straight years. News reports this month reminded us that the graduation rate in Oklahoma City and Tulsa is roughly 50 percent. For the defenders of the status quo to talk about "results that are intended" is nothing short of laughable. Moreover, as mentioned above, the New Hope Scholarship Act is replete with accountability measures.

"Public schools must accept everyone regardless of disabilities, test scores, religion, or other characteristics," the education establishment argues. "Private schools can show favoritism in selecting students."

We’re not sure how this is relevant to SB 2093, but it deserves rebuttal nonetheless. As education researchers Jay Greene and Marcus Winters wrote last year for OCPA:

Surprising as it may be, most private schools are not very selective. A study of the nation’s Catholic schools concluded that the typical institution accepted 88 percent of the students who applied. Other research in D.C., Dayton, and New York private schools found that only one percent of parents reported their children were denied admission because of a failed admissions test. Moreover, the academic and demographic backgrounds of students who use vouchers to attend private school across the country are very similar to those who don’t.

Private schools don’t significantly alter their student populations by expelling low-achieving or troublesome students, either. One study found that "Catholic high schools dismiss fewer than two students per year" on average. While it is true that every student is officially entitled to a publicly funded education, students in public schools are regularly expelled. According to the U.S. Department of Education, roughly one percent of all public school students are expelled in a year, and an additional 0.6 percent are segregated into specialized academies. That’s more than in Catholic and other private schools. Moreover, public schools actually contract out 1.3 percent of their disabled students to private schools.

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