Ten Commandments fight could be a back door to private school vouchers

Photo by Ann Althouse / CC BY-NC 2.0
Photo by Ann Althouse / CC BY-NC 2.0

In the latest development in the contentious saga of Oklahoma’s Ten Commandments monument, multiple court orders have forced the state to remove the monument from Capitol grounds. Its new home is the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a think tank that has been one of the biggest advocates in the state for expanding vouchers to allow tax dollars to go to private schools and homeschooling parents. The new location of the monument is fitting, because attempts by Governor Fallin and the Legislature to bring the monument back to the Capitol could have a major side effect of opening the door to vouchers.

So what does a debate over a monument have to do with school vouchers? Court decisions ordering the removal of the monument were based on Article II, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which reads:

No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.

In response, Governor Fallin promised to work on changing the Constitution through a ballot initiative. Legislators have already filed a joint resolution that put on the ballot a repeal of that entire section of the Constitution. That same section of the Constitution (which critics have dubbed “The Blaine Amendment” to connect it to historical anti-Catholic sentiments, though others dispute that characterization) was the basis of an Oklahoma District Court ruling that Oklahoma’s existing private school vouchers for students with disabilities, known as Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships, could not be used at religiously affiliated private schools.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships case has been appealed to the Supreme Court, but if Oklahoma eliminates that section of our Constitution, the previous court ruling will become moot. That would bolster the efforts of those seeking to expand vouchers. A bill introduced by Sen. Clark Jolley last session, SB 609, sought to make vouchers available to all students. SB 609 was withdrawn after facing broad opposition from other lawmakers and the public, but Rep. Jason Nelson has said he plans to push the bill again next session.

How vouchers damage the case for school choice

It’s unfortunate that the debate over school choice has come to turn so much on the issue of vouchers for private schools.

[pullquote]”Ensuring that all taxpayers contribute to free public schools is a fundamental principal that we should not take lightly.”[/pullquote]A strong case can be made that the neighborhood school model does have some negative side effects. When families must move out of a neighborhood to change schools, that can create isolated pockets of poverty for those who can’t afford to move. Competition for homes in high-performing school districts also may lead to a bidding up of house prices that leaves many middle class families in dire financial straits, as Elizabeth Warren (before her Senator days) and Amelia Tyagi point out in The Two-Income Trap.

At the same time, ensuring that all taxpayers contribute to free public schools is a fundamental principal that we should not take lightly. There’s a reason we expect even those without children or whose children are out of school, home-schooled, or attending a private school to pay taxes in support of free public schools. By offering education for all, the public school system benefits everyone in our society, whether or not they directly participate. Allowing those with the means to opt out of this commitment by directing tax dollars to a private school would undermine this common goal. That’s why another part of our Oklahoma Constitution, Section XIII, Article 1, states, “The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated” [emphasis added].

We pay for public roads whether or not we drive; we pay for public parks and libraries whether or not we visit them; we pay for police and fire departments whether or not we employ private security; we pay for a safety net whether or not we are currently in need. These core services make all of Oklahoma more safe and more prosperous, because, as UCO Business Dean Mickey Hepner is fond of saying, the alternative is “a place that’s populated with unhealthy, uneducated individuals who have to travel down dirt roads populated by criminals.” That’s not a place where many businesses would want to set up shop or many families would want to live.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to provide the benefits of school choice within the public system. Many districts do this already through charter schools, magnet schools, and open enrollment policies. If the vouchers movement devoted its energy to expanding public school choice, we could have a far more constructive debate — one that focused on improving the public school system for all students, not opening an exit hatch from our common obligations.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

2 thoughts on “Ten Commandments fight could be a back door to private school vouchers

  1. I’ve heard both Nelson and Jolley speak about their dissatisfaction with the public school system, but have never heard anyone press them on their reasons. Jolley is just a shill for the Koch brothers and big oil, while Nelson is a nincompoop who thinks a twenty minute perusal of articles from a google search amounts to solid research. (I witnessed as much at a forum where he defended the universally discredited A-F school grading system.) Their imperial attitude in these matters should inspire voters to hold these two accountable. Their ideas ignore the needs of the majority of Oklahoma school kids.
    On a related note – This is a fine article. But your conclusion doesn’t satisfy me. In my opinion charter schools are only a good idea when there is financial parity among all schools. When that happens then charters can fulfill their original purpose – to be centers of innovation and creative problem-solving to develop best practice for all schools. Otherwise charter schools are merely private schools that rob poor public schools to fund private entities that run them. Jolley and Nelson, if they’ve thought that far ahead, probably support charters because they’re a step toward the privatization of all schools.

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