Education Savings Accounts: Facts, Myths, and Bovine Excrement!

We can always count on the deep thinkers at The Oklahoman Editorial Board to regurgitate the ALEC talking points in exquisite detail.

In today’s steamy load of bollocks, the editors addressed the hot topic of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Education Savings Accounts are the latest iteration of school voucher proposals and are touted by free market advocates as the future of school choice policies and a vehicle for education reform.

These ESAs are not your father’s school voucher concept, they are vouchers 2.0. This is school choice hopped up on steroids.

The corporate reformers hope that they have finally stumbled on a plan where they can legislate vouchers in such a way to get around all of those messy “constitutional issues” and get the courts to approve them.

For any of you who believe it is horrible timing to even consider diverting additional funds from public schools which have endured the largest per pupil cuts in America since 2008 (-23.6%), and are facing additional reductions due to the current fiscal shortfall for FY2016 (-$611 million), the DOK says don’t worry your little head about all that.

In fact, here’s their headline: “No good reason to oppose Education Savings Accounts in Oklahoma.” In fact, for all of us loggerheads, The Oklahoman goes as far as assuring us that this is a “win-win for Oklahoma.”

REALLY!?! NO good reason? If this was really the panacea for reforming public education in America, why are so many smart people fighting tooth and nail to stop it dead?

I don’t know about you, but the mere fact that The Oklahoman actually supports ESAs is a “GOOD” reason for me to oppose them. I suppose the Oklahoman still thinks there was no good reason to oppose Janet Barresi as state superintendent and that she was a “win-win” for Oklahoma.

To make our ignorance easier for us to recognize, the Oklahoman was nice enough to frame their article with a series of MYTHS (what stupid people like us think) and FACTS (what Jeb Bush, ALEC, Rep Jason Nelson, Sen Clark Jolley, and BIG business KNOW to be true, with no evidence of course).

For my analysis of the Oklahoman article, I will add a third retort to the MYTH-FACT argument, aptly titled BOVINE EXCREMENT (along with a few other pithy comments of my own in RED)

Let’s dive into The Oklahoman’s article:

“VARIOUS groups want increased funding for kindergarten through 12th-grade schools this year. The harsh reality of the state’s budget situation makes meeting those demands near to impossible. (Teachers and schools are getting squat…therefore we need choice?)

Yet one proposal, creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), could allow legislators to increase per-pupil funding without a dramatic spending hike — while also increasing children’s education options. This is a win-win for Oklahoma.

hippogriff(Oh, what a clever semantic shell game—the legislature is not going to increase overall funding for schools yet we will magically increase per pupil funding for schools. If you believe this, you will want to sign up to watch Sasquatch ride a hippogriff across the rainbow bridge to Atlantis to fight the Loch Ness monster later this spring. It’s going to happen.)

Under bills filed by Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, and Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, much of the per-pupil funding used to educate a child could instead be deposited in an individual bank account. Parents would be given a debit card and allowed to use that account to customize their child’s education. The money could be used for a wide range of education options, including tutoring, online courses, private school and other services. Money left unspent could continue to accumulate and be used for future educational needs. (In other words, parents could get a portion of their child’s education funding on an ATM card to use for home schooling, online courses, or private school tuition in their sectarian school of choice.)

Many Oklahoma lawmakers say they support parental involvement in K-12 education (seriously, is there anyone saying they do not want parent involvement in schools). The bills by Nelson and Jolley provide an opportunity to back up that rhetoric with action.

Yet some groups, such as the teachers’ union and its allies (like who?), adamantly oppose parental empowerment (nice ad hominem attack –we all know how teachers hate those pesky parents). Their objections are without merit (really, no merit at all, not even a little?). Below are a few of the myths opponents have spread about ESAs (The Oklahoman really hates us myth spreaders).

MYTH: Allowing parents to use taxpayer dollars at private institutions, including religiously affiliated private schools, is unprecedented.

FACT: Such use of taxpayer dollars is actually routine. Medicaid funding can pay for treatment at Catholic hospitals. Day care subsidies may be spent on a church-based provider. Numerous government programs allow beneficiaries to spend tax funds with the provider of their choice, including religious institutions. K-12 education is an outlier, a rare instance where citizens are currently required to use tax money at only one location, regardless of quality.

BOVINE EXCREMENT:  Article II of the Oklahoma Constitution explicitly prohibits the use of public funds to aid, directly or indirectly, ANY sectarian institute, while articles I and XIII state that the legislature establish and maintain a system of free PUBLIC schools. This does not say the legislature can appropriate funds directly to citizens to choose their own educational setting. The Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) scholarships for students with special needs has yet to be decided at the Oklahoma Supreme Court and will not likely be heard until later this year or even 2016.

Furthermore, school choice advocates have made the same mistake for years of confusing social organizations with markets. Markets do many things extraordinarily well, but selecting a school is not remotely the same as selecting a breakfast cereal, or a car or a computer, where it is possible for a large number of choices to be packed into a fairly small space.

You simply cannot construct enough schools in close enough proximity to students to have an actual marketplace where competitive pressures lead to improvement. It has been tried and failed in numerous large cities across America.

MYTH: ESAs take money away from public schools.

FACT: ESAs increase per-pupil funding at public schools even when students use an ESA account to attend private schools. The money deposited into an ESA account is less than the child’s full per-pupil allocation. The amount deposited into an ESA account would equal 30 percent to 90 percent of the child’s per-pupil funding amount (the size of the deposit would be tied to family income). The remainder — a sum ranging from 10 percent to 70 percent of the per-pupil allocation — would stay with the public schools. Thus, schools would actually see a slight increase in overall per-pupil funding even if a family uses an ESA to send a child to a private school. It’s mathematically impossible for schools to experience anything but an increase in per-pupil funding under that scenario.

BOVINE EXCREMENT:  This is true, the lawyers and policy wonks at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) know how to play this game well. These talking points have been massaged and manipulated for years in focus groups and think tanks. Let’s look at the last sentence alone: “It’s mathematically impossible for schools to experience anything but an increase in per-pupil funding under that scenario.”

This is technically correct, yet so very disingenuous and misleading!

Let me illustrate with a simple analogy. You and your wife have a large family with ten children, ages 2 to 17. Like all families in America, the federal government provides compensation in the form of tax incentives or personal exemptions. This year, the government allows you to claim a $4,000 credit for each child, or $40,000 in total you can deduct from your annual taxable income.

Your oldest son, Joey, decides you are not such great parents after all. Using his Parental Scholarship Act (PSA) which allows him to choose the people he wants to be parented by, Joey decides he wants to take his money down the street to Mr. and Mrs. Cool’s home. The Cools actually do very little parenting themselves, instead relying on the use of technology to impart their knowledge and wisdom. Each child in their household has 24/7 access to a personal technology device with open availability to hundred of videos related to parental guidance and insight. Mr. and Mrs. Cool actually live in another state but operate their house in Tulsa through proxy.

Joey is allowed to transfer 70% ($2,800) of his personal exemption to the Cools. You and your wife get to keep the remaining 30% ($1,200), yet have one less kid to take care of. As a result, the personal exemptions YOU can now claim is $37,200 for nine kids, or $4,133 per child. This represents a $133 increase over your previous funding, so what’s there to complain about?

Your household child count has been reduced by 10% but your household funding has only been decreased by 7% ($40000 to $37,200). This is a win-win, isn’t it?

Of course not, it is not that simple. The reality is that many of your fixed costs associated with running your household have not changed at all. You cannot downsize your house. Your costs for electricity, gas, water, sewage, trash, cable, phone, transportation, and food will remain essentially unchanged. Other than possibly having some reduced costs for Joey’s clothing and daily subsistence, the remaining nine children still want two parents and the same household amenities they enjoyed before Joey left.

Let’s transfer this back to schools. How many special education teachers do I need to have to teach a group of ten students with severe/profound disabilities? One. How many do I need to teach eight students. Still one. I still need the same building, the same classroom, the same materials and resources, the same heat, air, and electricity, and the same transportation needs. So, yes, I may be getting more money per pupil but at what point can I actually begin reducing my fixed costs to educate the children I have left?

MYTH: If families use an ESA to send a child to a private school, it will harm the local community where the child’s “assigned” public school is based.

FACT: ESAs make it possible for families to remain in areas where a poor-performing school would otherwise cause them to move away once children reach school age. With an ESA, families can live anywhere they choose. By staying in certain areas, those families will continue to pay property taxes that support the local public school; those families’ continued presence could also help increase overall property values in the neighborhood. Thus, ESAs can have an indirect, positive impact on local funding for some of the state’s most-challenged public schools.

BOVINE EXCREMENT: School choice is taxation without representation. Schools are not a service for parents. The people who produced the student are not the only “customers” for the school.

Blogger Peter Greene explains this well: “The educated human being who emerges from school will become our neighbor, an employee, a parent, a spouse, a voter, a (one hopes) involved citizen, a person whose job will contribute in some way to the life of the community. Everybody who will ever deal with her in any of those capacities shares the benefits of that education. They are all “customers” of public education.”

We all have a stake in public education. We all pay taxes to support public education. And we all get to vote on school board members who will manage the operation of our schools. As a result we can hold them accountable for their decisions. Local control of schools used to be one of the last remaining arenas in which regular folks, regular taxpayers still had a say.  School choice undercuts that power, sometimes removing it completely.

School choice throws all of this out the window. Do you think it’s a bad idea for a student to spend YOUR tax dollars to attend The Satan School for Sorcery, Racial Purity Elementary School, Football Magnet School, or the Flat Earth Intermediate School. Well, under school choice, if you don’t have a kid, you don’t have a voice. Too bad for you.

Even more importantly, a relatively small number of parents can decide that an entire school district will have to make massive cuts. When they jump ship with their ESA scholarships, they don’t just take their own tax dollars with them– they take the tax dollars of all their neighbors as well, and those neighbors get no say in the matter at all.

MYTH: Giving parents an ESA account is comparable to allowing citizens to demand a tax refund from transportation revenue if they do not use a particular highway.

FACT: With ESAs, state education funding will continue to fund education — period. Every tax dollar dedicated to education continues to pay for education.

BOVINE EXCREMENT:  Okay, this is going to get a little esoteric but hang with me.

The Legislature’s primary constitutional role relative to education is the maintenance of its public schools on behalf of the parents who have chosen for their students to attend them.  For this reason, we should view the public policy discussion around the choice voucher program as a matter of competing choices.

Particularly, I will then argue that in the context of insufficiently maintained public schools, a policy that allows some parents to direct any public funds away from public schools conflicts with the Oklahoma legislature’s constitutionally-mandated obligation to “the establishment and maintenance of a public school system” (OK  Const. Art. 2, Sec. 5).

The choice vouchers then present a clear conflict between parental choices when the legislature allows parents to divert public funds away from public schools while, at the same time and per the legislature’s own definition, they have failed to maintain the public schools in support of the choice of those parents whose children attend public schools. The policy discussion shifts from whether or not the legislature can allow parent choice to the more appropriate question of how the state must prioritize the use of public funds. Put another way, the test boils down to how the state must use the next available dollar to fund public schools.

Therefore, I believe the Oklahoma constitution REQUIRES that the next available dollar must first go to maintaining public schools and when, and only when, public schools are maintained, can the legislature pursue the secondary policy choice to allow parents to divert public funds away from public schools. To allow parents to take public funds from public schools that are insufficiently maintained is in direct conflict with the legislature’s obligation to support the choices of public school parents.

MYTH: If children use an ESA to leave the public school system, schools will be less able to pay “fixed costs” that remain in place.

FACT: School officials often complain that they have higher costs because student enrollment has increased. Yet they act as if the opposite trend — declining enrollment — does not decrease associated expenses. The “fixed cost” claim is nonsense. The only way for a school to truly become financially unstable under the ESA program is if the overwhelming majority of students choose to leave the district.

This should go without saying, but we’ll note it anyway: If a school is so bad that no one with a choice will enroll their children there, then that school is not worth “saving.”

BOVINE EXCREMENT: One of the assumptions of every choice system is that a choice system can operate for the same amount of money– or less– than the current system. This is clearly false.

Which will be more inexpensive and efficient– educating 1000 students in one school , or educating them in ten separate hundred-student schools, each with its own group of administrative employees and each with its own physical plant and infrastructure.  Isn’t this contradictory to the premise that we need to reduce administrative costs by reducing school districts in Oklahoma? Does any school board say: “We’re in serious financial trouble, so let’s take our set of elementary schools and break them into even more elementary schools?”

There are some functions that government can perform more efficiently. To tie into the previous argument, nobody suggests that we open the door to any contractor who wants to set up a competing system of interstate highways. Nor do we open up each house fire to bids from any private fire department that wants to put it out. A primary rationale for a state-sponsored public system of schools is to enhance efficiency by reducing redundancy. How does spreading children over even more schools make things more efficient?

School choice requires multiple school systems to live as cheaply as one, and they can’t. Yes, there are charters who claim they can do it. So far, they are all liars; any lower operating costs they purport to achieve are the result of simply tossing high-cost students out of the system, and if we’re willing to throw away the expensive children, we can make public schools run way cheaper tomorrow.

MYTH: Those who support ESAs simply want to destroy public schools.

FACT: Strong majorities support ESAs. Oklahoma parents of all backgrounds want their children to get a quality education. A January survey conducted by SoonerPoll on behalf of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs found that 55.6 percent of likely Oklahoma voters favored ESAs, including nearly half of Democrats. Over two-thirds of likely voters younger than 45 — those most likely to have school-age children — favored ESAs. And 68.2 percent agreed ESAs should be available to all families, regardless of incomes and special needs. Other public polls have generated similar results.

BOVINE EXCREMENT: Okay, let’s just accept the fact that because a majority of people say they like something doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Because, gee, I cannot figure out why wealthy people whose children attend private schools would be in support of ESAs. This would mean they would get a free check from the state each year to offset the cost of private school tuition. Oh, wait…

The bottom line is that ESAs WOULD BE destructive to our system of public schools. What happens when all of the children with engaged parents take their money and bring it to selective charters or private schools? What happens to the children remaining in schools that are now even more disadvantaged and underfunded.

The ESA legislation also does not require that any school actually accepts your child. Every admission decision will be a marketing decision. If your child is too expensive, we won’t want him. If he is going to bring down our test scores, we’re sending him back to you. We will have competition all right. As a parent, you will compete with other parents to pull strings, manipulate the system, and otherwise score your kid a seat at Super Duper Exclusive High School. Of course, this is how the Chinese do it and their kids do great guns on those big international tests, or at the least the third of them who make it to high school do.

MYTH: ESAs will allow parents to commit fraud.

FACT: Former Skiatook Public Schools Superintendent Gary Johnson took bribes and allowed a vendor to overcharge the district by $570,000. In 2011, a TV news investigation found de facto bid-rigging may have inflated roofing prices by as much as $5.6 million for Tulsa schools over several years. A state audit found school administrators in the Dickson Public School district used tax funds to stay at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas, for a so-called “planning” session, and that officials were using district vehicles for personal use. ESA fraud, should it occur, will be easier to identify and prosecute — and it will occur on a far smaller scale than what already happens in public schools.

BOVINE EXCREMENTOkay, this is a beauty! In the very next paragraph, the editors accuse ESA critics of creating straw men to avoid arguing the FACTS, then proceed to create a STRAW MAN of Biblical proportions.

Here is their straw man argument: Because there have been occasional incidents of fraud and misuse of government funds from public school officials (which I might add were CAUGHT because of existing systems of oversight such as audits), we should not be worried about parents manipulating or defrauding this system! What about the parent who pockets the cash, turns in receipts for educational supplies and textbooks, yet the child sits in front of a computer playing games all day instead of going to school?

The potential for abuse is HUGE. To imply that abuse will be far less than what is already happening in public schools is just a LIE, with absolutely NO evidence to support it! Talk to me when our government is successful eliminating fraud and abuse in social security, welfare, and medicare payments which, by conservative estimates, cost our nation over $100 billion a year .

FINAL MYTH: There are legitimate reasons to oppose ESAs and parental involvement in a child’s education.

FACT: ESA critics have no leg to stand on, only straw men substituting for serious arguments. Both Arizona and Florida already have ESA programs; those state’s public school systems have not collapsed. Based on the facts, there is no reason for state lawmakers to oppose legislation creating ESAs and empowering Oklahoma parents.

BOVINE EXCREMENT: The jury is still out on both of these states. Arizona has had its Education Empowerment Scholarships since 2011 but Florida just passed them into law last session. But, I’m sure we have nothing to worry about, right? To make this type of dramatic change to the landscape of public education in Oklahoma during this period of financial uncertainty would be as illogical as passing an income tax cut when revenues are going down.

There is NO way we could be THAT stupid!

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8 thoughts on “Education Savings Accounts: Facts, Myths, and Bovine Excrement!

  1. Two words: Nelson & Jolley!! Enough reason for Okies to run for the hills 🙂

    And might I add that ESA’s are still federal bribes and another “Trojan Horse” acting similar to a fertilizer spreader. Why would we continue to disperse this disaster from public to private and homeschool? Let’s keep these corporate cash cows and their manure sustained to one pen please! At least that might give us some standing hope in winning this long arduous fight of political poo.

  2. You must not have read the most recent publication of the Daily Prophet. The Sasquatch’s hippogrif tragically died, so he is now riding a unicorn.

    Bahaha!!

  3. Talking about the potential for fraud; I believe Oklahoma’s Constitution gives it’s citizens the right to home school. My research a couple of years ago indicated that DHS couldn’t investigate where it was just a case of failing to home school and no other factors. I wonder if these new bills take this into account or just assume all parents will do the right thing. But you know what they say about assuming…..

  4. Rob,

    I read the ESA article in The Oklahoman this morning at Braum’s while struggling to not spit out my coffee. While I was reading, I had the distinct sense that I was wading into some deep and fragrant stuff . . . even started trying to envision some of “what Rob would say”. 🙂 Interestingly, I had nearly the exact same thoughts in regard to fixed costs . . . particularly the Joey example. As someone who is a proud product of my local public school system and who has spent the better part of two decades as a teacher in a public school, I resent the smug assertion about some schools being “not worth” saving as well as the barb “regardless of quality”.

    MYTH: The Oklahoman uses its editorial power responsibly by backing up its positions with unfailing dedication to understanding the complexities and best practices in curriculum, instruction, assessment, environment, and educational policy.

    FACT: The Oklahoman grossly abuses its position by spreading oversimplified misinformation, half-truths, and vitriol as a byproduct of its agenda and/or its (intentional?) ignorance in regard to educational realities. Thankfully, there are true allies to public education (like, say, Rob Miller, Rick Cobb, and Blue Cereal) who have eyes and noses keen enough to spot bovine excrement and the balls (sorry, I mean boldness) to call it bovine excrement.

  5. I just don’t understand how ESA’s would make private education more accessible for anybody, particularly disadvantaged or low SES students. It’s been a while since I’ve taken economics, but wouldn’t the laws of supply and demand dictate a huge hike in private school tuition? There are a limited number of spots available in private schools, so an increase in applicants would either: a.) allow private schools to be even more selective (not good for students coming from low-performing schools) or b.) RAISE TUITION. Admission to the highest bidder. Which would make the money from the ESA insufficient for costs, and low-income families would not be able to make up the difference. Am I missing something?
    It also seems like ESA’s require the action of a concerned and present parent. This is (sadly) already a void for a lot of students who are doing poorly in school.
    It just seems like a fix for a choice few people and will make things worse for almost everybody else.

    • Mindy, you have captured some very real unintended (or intentional) consequences of ESAs. Certainly qualify as “good reasons” to me!

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