‘School choice’ is a popular phrase, but do Oklahomans want vouchers? (Capitol Updates)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Photo by Elizabeth Albert / CC BY 2.0
Photo by Elizabeth Albert / CC BY 2.0

The capitol did not see much action last week as the current occupants turned their attention to travel, family and Thanksgiving. With the deadline for requesting a bill for the upcoming session on December 11th, one can assume things will be picking up soon. Outside the capitol there was a recent poll that caught my attention because it will probably be used to affect our state during the next session and beyond.

The poll was in Sooner Survey, a publication of Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates which was founded by Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK) and Deby Snodgrass who is currently Secretary of Commerce and Tourism and Director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, appointed by Governor Fallin. Pat McFerron is now President of Cole Hargrave Snodgrass in addition to having founded CMA Strategies, a political consulting and lobbying firm.

According to McFerron, the numbers show public support in Oklahoma for “school choice” is overwhelming — 70 percent. Support for the belief that “competition will help schools” is also strong, 67 percent to 21 percent. Less compelling numbers are found for a proposal that will surely be debated in the next session, which is Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), otherwise known as “vouchers.” ESAs are described in the poll as “a proposal which would allow parents to take a portion of the yearly state funding which is currently used to educate their child in a traditional public school and create a personalized account to fund their child’s education expenses. These expenses could be customized to include private or parochial school tuition, online education programs, tutoring, and books, and other future college expenses.” In the poll, 29 percent strongly favor this proposal while 26 percent strongly oppose. The middle 36 percent are divided between people who somewhat support, 25 percent, and those who somewhat oppose, 11 percent; 8 percent are undecided.

If this proposal comes up next year, legislators should look behind these numbers before they make their decision. First, giving people a choice is usually a popular notion, regardless of the topic, and it’s almost a cardinal rule in America that competition is a good thing. Savings accounts are also thought of in a positive way. So it’s not a surprise that “choice,” “competition” and “savings account” would poll well. This isn’t the first time a school voucher proposal has come up. No doubt there is valid scientific research showing whether competition really produces better schools and whether vouchers have improved education where they have been used.

Although most of us are willing to give our opinion to a pollster with only a few second’s thought we should expect our legislators to be a little more thorough. Public opinion, although transient, is an important factor in governing, but it’s not the end all for good public policy. After all, there was a recent Pew Research Center survey showing that 55 percent of the people believe that “ordinary Americans” could do a better job of solving our country’s problems than elected officials.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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