The Tulsa World recently published a piece by a leader of the teacher walkout a few years ago predictably opposing Governor Stitt’s proposal to expand the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program. There is much to take issue with in the piece, which is full of disinformation, but perhaps the most preposterous claim is the following:

You’ve probably also heard of “school choice.” The term is extremely misleading because it implies that parents don’t have a choice, when the reality is every parent already has school choice for their child. Parents can choose to send their child to a public school, private school, religious school or even home school. School choice isn’t about giving parents more options. It’s about using taxpayer dollars to give wealthy families a discount on their choice of school. (emphasis added)

Try telling that to the truancy officer.
 

The model of public education in America is that we assign every student to a government school based on the part of town they live in, and if they don’t show up, we threaten their parents with criminal prosecution. Then we sit back and wonder why public schools rarely show improvement no matter how much money we pour into them.

It’s simple. When people are required to buy your product under the threat of jail, you don’t have much incentive to attract them with quality.

Or try telling this “choice” canard to children who live in North Tulsa. The government school district that “serves” them (more accurately, fails them) is well-funded per pupil compared to the average across the state (Tulsa Public Schools somehow still manages to face a $20 million deficit this year). In 2018, for example, TPS spent $14,248 per student when accounting for all revenue sources, compared to a state average of $10,793. But for kids on the North side, this above-average funding must be cold comfort. Central High School, for example, has an F-rating from the State Department of Education, and the 4-year graduation rate is only 69 percent.

More astonishingly, according to the school’s report card, 0 percent of African American and American Indian students achieved a grade-level proficient score in state testing in 2019. Yes, zero. 

The rest of the student body is hardly better off: only 2.3 percent of all Central students made a grade-level proficient score. There may be many factors that contribute to these dismal—borderline criminal—results. But a thriving, high quality public school isn’t one of them.

Do the parents of these students feel like they have the choice the teacher who walked out on kids two years ago claims they have? If so, why aren’t they exercising it?

What’s more, recent actions reveal the view of TPS leadership when it comes to giving more options to poor students in failing schools. On the recommendation of district leadership, the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education recently rejected the application of an innovative charter school that is trying to open practically across the street from Central High School.

Choice for Me, but Not for Thee

The truth is, we do already have school choice, but only for those who are wealthy enough to pay for private school or to purchase a home in a “good” public school district. That leaves a lot of kids behind.

Most parents in our system have school choice the same way they have private jet choice. After all, no one is stopping them from buying a G5.

The walkout teacher argues that the Equal Opportunity Tax Credit’s relatively high upper income limit to receive a scholarship (around $140,000 for a family of four) favors the privileged at the expense of average students. He claims that because the scholarshipsonly pay for a fraction of what it actually costs to [sic] these private and religious schools” they are “nothing but a scam to give wealthy families discounts on the education of their choosing.”

I find the income threshold to be a positive feature of the program, not a defect, as it allows more students to access the program. But even granting the premise that only low income children should be offered an escape from government schools, the facts do not back up this criticism of the scholarship program. 

If critics of the program have any evidence to back their oft-repeated talking point that families in the high income range are the primary beneficiaries of the scholarship program, they should cite it. They never do. That’s because a claim without evidence is good enough if you are trying to mislead and scare people into preserving a failed status quo. 

The organizations who administer these scholarships have the actual numbers, and they tell a different story. The Opportunity Scholarship Fund, for example, reports that 52% of its scholarship students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, meaning around $47,000 for a family of four.

The education establishment also claims the scholarship program takes money out of public schools. It does no such thing.

The truth, according to a study by economists at Oklahoma City University, is that the state actually saves $1.39 for every $1 in tax credits it gives out under the program. If you include all funding sources, the fiscal return is even higher, at $2.91 to $1.

How can this be? The answer is that we spend so much money per pupil in this state that the money saved by a student exiting the public school system exceeds the tax credit given out to fund his scholarship.

Think about that next time you hear that Oklahoma does not “fully fund” public education. It is cheaper to pay a student to attend a private school than to educate them in a government school.

When public education activists like the walkout teacher tell us we need to “support education,” we should inquire as to what, exactly, they mean by that. Too often, when they talk—and when they walk—they reveal their priority to be the maintenance of a failing status quo and their own professional comfort, not the improvement of children’s education.

Benjamin Lepak is Legal Fellow at The 1889 Institute. He can be reached at blepak@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.