John Lepine is an OK Policy Research Fellow. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Administration, Curriculum, and Supervision at the University of Oklahoma. He is also a reading specialist and English department chair at the McLain Magnet High School for Science & Technology and a research associate with the Oklahoma Center for Education Policy.
With budget cuts to public schools dominating recent headlines, the political wrangling in March over Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) seems long forgotten. Rep. Jason Nelson’s HB 2949 would have allowed payments to families with students who leave public schools. These families would receive a voucher for a portion of the funding that the state would have given their public school district, which could go towards private school tuition or homeschool expenses.
While HB 2949 stalled out this legislative session, it is likely that Oklahoma will see other proposals for school vouchers in the years to come. Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman observed that due to the state budget crisis, “A lot of people that might be in favor of [ESAs] philosophically” withheld their support because the “environment [was] probably not conducive to, in their opinion, passing that bill.”
The philosophical case for school vouchers is crystalized by Rep. Nelson, who has pushed for ESAs for years: “If you’re well-to-do, you can go wherever you want to go. But if you’re in poverty, and the way out of poverty is through a good education but you can’t get it where you live, this gives you an option to put something else together.”
Rep. Nelson is correct that many students from low-income families who need good schools the most often have the least access to them. A voucher program could offer a remedy to that disparity, if it is carefully designed and implemented. However, many obstacles can derail the use of vouchers as an anti-poverty measure. Although HB 2949 did provide for larger vouchers (90 percent of state aid) for low-income students, its design nonetheless included many barriers to a genuine expansion of school choice.
Which students would not see increased school choice from ESAs? Students who lack transportation to private schools. Students who are denied admittance to private schools. Students who have fewer private school options because they belong to a religious minority (4 in 5 Oklahoma private schools are religious). Students whose parents are relatively less well-informed or less able to navigate bureaucratic rules and systems.
Most critically, students from families that cannot afford any payments in addition to the value of their vouchers would be left behind in public schools. That is because students’ vouchers would be a portion of their State Aid factor, which averaged just over $3,000 for Oklahoma fifth-graders in 2015-16. That’s significantly less than the average private elementary school tuition in Oklahoma ($4,683); for high schools, that number jumps over $7,000. One prestigious private school in Tulsa County charges over $17,000 a year for high school tuition.
“As wealthier families took advantage of private school vouchers, the lowest-income students would be left behind in schools that were increasingly segregated by income.”
In short, the poorest students in our public schools — those most in need of more targeted intervention — would have the least ability to use Education Savings Accounts. As wealthier families took advantage of private school vouchers, the lowest-income students would be left behind in schools that were increasingly segregated by income. Fewer middle- and high-income parents would remain to advocate for those schools, to participate in the PTA, to donate to school fundraisers, or to exert a positive influence on the culture of the school through their high expectations for their students. Even if ESAs provide some benefits for the students who use them (and perhaps could not have attended private schools otherwise), the potential consequences for non-voucher students are enormous, detrimental, and ultimately inequitable.
Research bears out the difficulty of using vouchers to provide poor students with greater school choice. Evidence from the Cleveland Scholarship Program (CSP) is especially relevant for Oklahoma. The CSP, like Oklahoma’s proposed ESA legislation, provides tiers of voucher funds based on the income of the student’s household, and vouchers may be spent at religious schools. Voucher usage rates in Cleveland have been consistent with other voucher programs: African-American students and low-income students are considerably less likely to use vouchers, while students who had previously been enrolled in private schools are more likely to use vouchers.
Other programs have seen comparable results to Cleveland or mixed success in using vouchers to lift students out of poverty. A 2006 study of New York City voucher programs found that black students were more likely to use vouchers than their qualifying peers, but Hispanic students and students from relatively lower income families were less likely. A 2013 study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, one of the oldest voucher programs in the country, found that voucher users tended to have lower incomes than their peers in public schools, but higher levels of parental education. However, unlike Oklahoma’s ESA legislation, vouchers in Milwaukee are means-tested, which helps to explain the success in promoting voucher usage among low-income students.
There are improvements that could be made to future voucher proposals. While HB 2949 would have made vouchers available to families of any income level, for example, more targeted legislation might restrict vouchers to students from low-income families. To reduce the risk of increased racial and economic segregation (which, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland notes, consistently occurs in cities with voucher programs), the legislation could offer larger vouchers for attending schools that are diverse than for attending homogenous schools. Schools that accept voucher students could be forbidden from charging tuition or fees in excess of the value of the voucher, avoiding the trend of low-income students not using vouchers because of tuition costs. Given the potentially disproportionate effects of voucher programs on the finances of small districts (which can be financially devastated by losing even a few dozen students), sensible voucher legislation might also restrict the initial implementation of voucher programs to residents of larger urban areas, just as charter schools were initially restricted to Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Rep. Jason Nelson, the key proponent of HB 2949, reminds us that “The sole function of education is not to fund an institution, it’s to educate students.” However, given that students tend to be educated by institutions, it is essential to make sure any voucher legislation strengthens educational institutions (both public and private) in the aggregate. There is great potential for carefully-designed school choice to improve the educational outcomes of Oklahomans who are currently languishing in underperforming (and underfunded) schools. However, the approach taken so far by ESA bills in the legislature would likely serve only to increase inequality and to worsen the already woeful state of school finances. Due to budget strains, this year was not the right time for any voucher legislation. Unless the ESA proposals that have so far been discussed in the Legislature are improved, there will never be a right time.