By December 5, 2015 Uncategorized 9 Comments

This past Friday, Jenks Public Schools hosted its annual Legislative Luncheon at the Dr. Kirby Lehman Math and Science Center. This well-attended event is an opportunity for local parents, teachers, and school administrators to speak directly with key legislators about important education policy issues prior to the upcoming legislative session.

Legislators at Friday’s panel were Rep. Jerry McPeak, D-Warner; Rep. Glen Mulready, R-Tulsa; Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City; Rep. Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks; and Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa.

Despite my ardent opposition to several of these lawmakers views on education policy, I appreciate them taking time to field questions and hear the concerns of parents and educators.

Obviously, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the large smelly pachyderm in the room–specifically the under funding of Oklahoma schools and teachers–a problem that has contributed to the critical educator shortage in our state.

While this topic was briefly discussed, there certainly were no viable solutions presented during this panel discussion. There is little doubt that this will continue to be a big fight as the legislature moves through its spring budgeting process.

Yet, as I discussed in my last post (“A Call to Arms“), the issue of Education Savings (or Scholarship) Accounts–a clever euphemism for vouchers–will undoubtedly be the most contentious education policy reform debated this year.

At least three of the legislators present Friday seem to be firmly behind the idea of ESAs. As reported in today’s Tulsa World, Senator Stanislawski and Representatives Strohm and Nelson will be fighting hard to “level the playing field” for the wealthy and well-connected parents of our state.

Please do not be fooled by lawmakers’ rhetoric about the importance of establishing ESAs as a mechanism to help poor students trapped in failing neighborhood schools.

Parents of students in urban areas like Tulsa can already apply to transfer their child to a different, “higher performing,” school within the district if they wish. In addition, our state open transfer laws allow parents to request a transfer to a school outside of the district, with consent from both the sending and receiving schools. My current school district accepts hundreds of out-of-district transfers each year, as do many other suburban districts.

Giving a single mother with four children in TPS a ESA check card will not open the door to any private school in the Tulsa area. At the same time, the educational scholarships will be very popular for home schooling parents as well as wealthy and connected families who want their children to attend private schools, while having taxpayers pick up a portion of the tuition.

During the panel discussion, Representative Strohm commented that schools like Jenks don’t need to worry about the impact of ESAs on their schools:

“Here in Jenks, if we had school choice, if we had ESAs, do you know how many people would get up and take their kids out of Jenks? I won’t say zero, but it’s gonna be such an insignificant amount that you’re not going to notice it,” Strohm said.

Yeah. No.

With due respect, Representative Strohm does not seem to fully understand the ESA mechanism. Depending on what version of ESA legislation might eventually get passed, parents of students ALREADY enrolled in private schools or choosing home school could now have access to an ESA for their child. These are children who are not currently included in the state funding formula.

Somewhere between five and ten percent of eligible students in the Jenks district do not currently attend a Jenks school. Instead, some of their parents have already chosen to enroll them in one of the many private school options in the Tulsa area or educate them at home.

Rep. Strohm may be accurate in stating that a significant number of new parents would not choose to pull their kids from Jenks. But somewhere between five hundred and a thousand children not currently attending Jenks schools could now pull money from the pot of state money dedicated to public schools. And this could actually increase the amount of money that Jenks receives from the state funding formula by adding students to their Average Daily Membership (ADM).

This gets a little convoluted, but hang with me.

Nelson, who has written previous bills on ESAs and plans to author another one next year, said his bills would increase per-pupil revenue, because not all the money allocated for a certain student would follow him or her to the private school.

This is how Nelson and other ESA proponents are able to argue they are a win-win for schools. To support his argument, Representative Nelson yesterday claimed “he had run the numbers” and that “he had a spreadsheet that could prove it.”

I am sure Representative Nelson’s spreadsheet says exactly what he wants it to say. He is absolutely correct in saying that SOME districts may get extra money as a result of ESAs. Yet, I strongly suspect his spreadsheet will NOT show the impact on hundreds of rural districts across Oklahoma.

It is easy to get lost in the numbers and smooth rhetoric if you look only at individual districts. In order to understand the full implications of ESAs, it is important to evaluate their impact on the state’s funding mechanism for all schools.

So, let’s look a little closer at Nelson’s argument.

He claims that ESAs increase per-pupil funding at public schools even when students use an ESA account to attend private schools. This assertion’s based on the fact that the money deposited into an ESA account is less than the child’s full per-pupil allocation. Per his most recent ESA legislation, 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, Nelson claims 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. As he would claim, “it’s mathematically impossible for schools to experience anything but an increase in per-pupil funding under that scenario.”

This could be technically correct, yet it also very disingenuous. 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 me illustrate why this is so misleading with a simple analogy I shared in a previous post

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. He’s tired of being trapped in what he considers a “failing household.”

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 does a school need to teach a group of ten students with severe/profound disabilities? One.

How many does the school need to teach eight students. Still one.

The school 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, the school may be getting more money per pupil but at what point can they actually begin reducing their fixed costs to educate the remaining children.

Let’s now look at the potential impact on rural schools, or districts for which parents really have few options other than the local public school.

Here is where Representative Nelson’s spreadsheet falls apart.

As I explained earlier, districts like Jenks might be able to actually gain additional funding as a result of siphoning more money out of the state formula by including students in private schools and home school –students who were previously not included in their average daily membership (ADM). (NOTE: In the interest of full transparency, last year’s ESA bills authored by Senator Jolley and Rep Nelson explicitly excludes homeschoolers. However, these bills have a way of mutating over time!)

Yet, by adding additional students to the state’s ADM without a commensurate increase in the total pool of available money means that the per pupil funding statewide will DECREASE.

Using state department figures , the state’s initial ADM for FY 2016 was slightly over 682,000 students. As a result, per pupil spending from the state formula is projected to be about $3,075.

If we add 500 students to a suburban district’s ADM (to account for previously unaccounted private school and home school students), those families will pull about $1.5 million from the formula. Using the 70/30 payment ratio from potential ESA legislation, parents collectively would keep $1.05 million for their education costs, and the district would get about $450,000–funds they previously were not entitled to.

If we extrapolate this out to potentially 5000 students statewide who might take advantage of ESAs–which may be a conservative estimate–this could pull about $15 million from the state funding formula. Yet, by adding “new” students to the state’s ADM, the student count would rise from 682,000 to 687,000.

Since the funding pool is constant, this would result in a net loss of $23/student “per pupil” spending statewide. This figure also ignores the effect of any additional weighting that accompanies students in certain grades and with specific demographic “factors”, e.g. disabilities, economically disadvantaged, Federal Title dollars, etc.

This may not seem like a lot of money when we’re discussing a nearly $2B education budget, but for cash-starved districts, any reduction equates to possible loss of teachers, reduced course offerings, or increased class sizes. Rural districts would see the greatest impact because their communities generally lack a private school option or other opportunities.

Of course, there are lawmakers with a solution to that problem too. That is to simply allow churches in the community or outside corporate charters to provide those alternative educational settings.

The problem with Representative Nelson’s spreadsheet is that it does reflect any additional funding for Oklahoma’s public schools. Therefore, it is a zero-sum game.

MY spreadsheet says if you increase the denominator (student count) while keeping the numerator (funding) constant, statewide per pupil spending will go down. When our state has already experienced the largest reductions (-23.6%) to education funding nationally since 2008, we cannot afford any additional cuts in the upcoming session.

And I don’t need a spreadsheet to show me this.

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