A Call to Arms

The opening salvos have been fired in advance of the looming battle to establish Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in Oklahoma next year.

According to the editorial writers at The Oklahoman, this school voucher initiative is a no-brainer, open and shut, no if, ands, or buts, slam dunk idea. In fact, their preemptive shot across the bow includes this closing statement:

It’s always been clear that there are no legitimate policy reasons to oppose ESAs in Oklahoma. Now it’s evident there are no legitimate political reasons for lawmakers to withhold their support either.

The tone of this year’s article is very similar to a previous opinion piece The Oklahoman published back in February, 2015 (“No Good Reason to Oppose Education Savings Accounts“).

This time around, to support the narrative that ESAs are a political “winner,” the writers present the results of recent polling conducted on the issue of school choice:

The latest edition of the Sooner Survey, a publication of Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates, shows 70 percent of all Oklahoma voters support school choice. That group includes 60 percent of registered Democrats. And — note to Republican lawmakers more worried about a primary opponent than a general election — 79 percent of Republicans support school choice. In fact, 54 percent of Republicans with a history of voting in primaries say they strongly support school choice.


There is also no rural-urban split on the issue — 70 percent of rural voters and those living in the state’s two major metropolitan areas supported school choice in the poll.


When asked specifically about ESAs, 55 percent of all voters were in favor, with the strongest support (64 percent in favor) coming from parents of school-age children.


In short, Republican support for ESAs is good politics and good policy. ESAs and school choice draw strong support from the party’s most active voters, and offer the chance to draw support from groups that otherwise support Democrats.

Essentially, through the seemingly crystal clear lens of the writers at The Oklahoman–if you are against ESAs–you are either an uninformed dolt or a self-serving member of the education status quo.

The reality is that ESAs (vouchers 2.0) are the crown jewel of the reform movement. If the reformers are successful in establishing this slippery slope of “vouchers for all,” the American promise of a free, appropriate, and equitable public education for ALL children will have been dealt a mortal blow.

Those children blessed with engaged and motivated parents will take their public tax dollars to whatever education venue they choose. The exodus of privileged children from the public school system, particularly in urban areas, will exacerbate the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, and restore an era of separate and unequal schools which will do irreparable harm to our nation.

Despite finely honed rhetoric to the contrary, ESA legislation, if passed, would allow the siphoning of taxpayer dollars directly from the common education budget, straight into the pockets of private sectarian schools and corporate charters.

I wrote at length on this topic last February. If you want to review the specifics, click on the links below.

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

Voucher Wolves Are at the Door

We’re Not Stupid

ESAs Do Not Help Our Most Needy!

If you are a parent who wants to use the Bible as your child’s Biology text, ESAs are for you. Likewise, if you want to supplement your child’s education at Shiny Prep Collegiate Academy with an all-expense paid trip to Europe over spring break (as educational enrichment of course), just put it on your ESA gift card.

This is not hyperbole or conspiracy mongering. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read this frightening article on the future of education published earlier this year in the Politico. In the article, “States Weigh Turning Education Funds Over to Parents,” you will learn other states outside of Oklahoma are also pushing legislation to enable parents to create ESAs using funds previously used to cover public education–to give them “the freedom to design a custom education for their children–at taxpayer expense.” And, the experiment hasn’t necessarily gone all that well.

Nationally, ESAs are catching on because they offer a way to circumvent provisions in many state constitutions (like Oklahoma’s) that prohibit spending public funds on religious schools. The Arizona Supreme Court last year let stand a lower-court ruling that found the ESA structure was constitutional because it puts the public funds, and the choice of how to spend them, in the hands of parents.

The hope of ESA advocates in Oklahoma is that the new and carefully crafted ALEC legislation will be able to survive constitutional challenges in our state as well.  As we know, the Lindsey Nicole Henry voucher program is currently awaiting final disposition by the Oklahoma Supreme Court on this foundational issue any day now.

The passage of any ESA voucher bill is dependent on a lack of transparency and intentional obfuscation on the part of its proponents. They are hoping that Oklahomans will fall for their clever euphemisms and rhetorical maneuvers. I am hopeful they have misjudged the intellect and level of discernment on the part of Oklahoma’s citizens.

I would submit that what legislators like Jason Nelson call “the ultimate in local control” is actually a thin veil to cover the ultimate in selfishness at the expense of those most marginalized. If you doubt this assertion, ask yourself how a voucher for private school is going to help a child with two siblings living in government housing, with a single parent working two jobs, in a crime-filled neighborhood of Tulsa or Oklahoma City? The reality is that it will not.

On the other hand, it will be very helpful to hundreds of parents who have moved their children out of the public school system to private, mostly sectarian schools. To the tune of millions of dollars every year. This is money our state DOES NOT have!

The bottom line is our state has absolutely no business discussing methods for draining even more public education funding out of an already dwindling state budget.

Our legislators need to remember they work for the people of Oklahoma and not the national reform crowd who fund their reelection campaigns. They need to stop playing games with the children of Oklahoma, especially our most needy!

As with federal medical insurance, the government cannot cover MORE students while maintaining current public education funding, without reducing per-pupil allocations to schools.

And, unlike the federal government, the state of Oklahoma must have a balanced budget. I’ll say it again. There is no additional money to fund these educational “scholarships.”

Even if there were more money, our state must first commit to restoring public school per-pupil funding to 2008 levels and increasing compensation for Oklahoma’s educators.

Being first in the nation in cuts to public education (-23.6%) in the past seven years is not okay!

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 would 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 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.

The battle over the future of public schools is far from over. Keep in mind that for many reformers, the whole purpose of common standards and test-based accountability is to prove the existence of mediocre schools and lazy teachers. Once they persuade enough parents of this fallacy, they are prepared to swoop in with their corporate charters and low-cost temporary teachers (or, better cheaper yet, a laptop in front of every kid).

They can smell the money and want to get their hands on it.

I am right there with fellow blogger Claudia Swisher when she wrote the following comment in response to Representative Strohm in her post last February:

“I am on the record as objecting with every cell in my body, to one penny of my tax contribution to public schools going to a private school in the form of a voucher. One. Penny.”

Make no mistake, there is no middle ground on this issue. While we all want a quality education for every child, I submit the best way to do this is to invest in the public schools we already have, rather than siphoning off even more dollars to benefit the rich and well-connected.

As a former Marine artillery officer, I am very familiar with how to direct well-aimed volleys on adversaries. You can be certain that I and other Oklahoma bloggers will be well-armed and prepared to counter fire any and all volleys from the opposing side. I am happy to take my turn on point.

With that said, we are certain to lose this battle unless we are able to mobilize a large, well-informed, and vocal “army” of parents and educators to fill our ranks. Suffice it to say, the ESA supporters will be well prepared and well financed by the out-of-state voucher wolves.

This is where you come in. Oklahoma public schools need your involvement. We need your phone calls and letters to legislators. We need your letters to the editor. We need you to share our articles and blogs on social media. We need your school board resolutions. We need your conversations with other parents and educators at PTA meetings and community gatherings. We need your visits to the Capitol. Finally, we need you to recruit others to fight for our schools and for our students.

We can and must win this fight. Please join us.

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