POSTED ON MAY 11, 2011:
Oklahoma's right is wrong about public education
In little more than three months, Oklahoma's public schools have been transformed into a laboratory for rightwing education ideology.
It remains to be seen whether any of the ballyhooed "reforms" work, but it's a potentially dangerous experiment that all state taxpayers -- with or without school age children -- should monitor closely.
Why could it be dangerous? Because the fate of our grand American institution known as common education hangs in the balance.
I'm not opposed to private schools or homeschooling. Still, I can't shake the sense that certain powers-that-be -- with anti-public education agendas -- are hastily throwing the baby out with the bath water when it comes to our common schools.
Rather than investing in public education, rightwing ideologues in power at the state Capitol are busy siphoning more money out of public education -- spinning rank-and-file Oklahomans on the noble-sounding idea of "opportunity scholarships."
Our public schools are the fabric that binds American society. The idea was simple, but powerful: Everyone -- regardless of race, religion, creed or social status -- would have equal access to a quality education that gave them a shot at realizing the American dream.
It's an imperfect system, to be sure. We have significant problems in many of our inner-city schools. But many of those problems stem from broken families and abject poverty -- not because schools and teachers aren't equipped to educate.
In Oklahoma, we've historically paid lip service to public education, routinely insisting it's our highest priority because, after all, it represents our future. It's easy for all to grasp that a well-educated workforce translates into higher incomes, more opportunities and a better quality of life.
Yet, we've never really put our money where our mouths are. And today, Oklahoma is 49th in per pupil expenditures, hardly a commitment that suggests real devotion to upgrading our state's academics.
Now comes Senate Bill 969, Tulsa Republican Sen. Dan Newberry's and Cushing GOP Rep. Lee Denney's "opportunity scholarships" -- sold as a way to help poor children in low-performing schools access the kind of education available to students in Jenks, Union, Broken Arrow or who attend Holland or Cascia.
The measure, almost certain to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, would provide individuals and corporations tax credits for up to half the amount they donate to a private scholarship fund -- a maximum $1,000 gift from individuals, $2,000 from couples and $100,000 from corporations. Non-profit agencies would accept the donations and determine which students receive scholarships.
So at a time when the Legislature refuses to come to grips with nearly $6 billion in tax breaks already on the books -- $2 billion of which never created a single job -- it wants to add more, further reducing the amount of state revenue available to fund education and other essential services.
The tax break is capped at $5 million annually, which doesn't seem like much when compared to a nearly $6 billion state budget. But as Democratic Sen. Richard Lerblance of McAlester points out, $5 million would have been more than enough to fund the Oklahoma Highway Patrol's trooper academy -- without raising fees (which the Legislature just did) on folks needing a copy of a vehicle accident report or want their driver's license reinstated.
Here's the real kicker: It's far from certain that poor kids from low-performing schools will really be helped by the "opportunity scholarships." The scholarships aren't likely to cover the full cost of tuition at a private school, leaving families already mired in poverty with a tall task in order to make up the difference. Further, they would have to figure out ways to transport students to their new, private schools -- not easy if all adults in the home work long hours and/or cars are unreliable.
So who stands to benefit? Clearly those who can afford to donate will be more than happy to cash in on yet another tax break. Big money especially migrates to such opportunities. But you might be surprised to know who else qualifies for the scholarships: Households with less than 300 percent of the free-or-reduced lunch threshold.
Currently, a family of four qualifies for a free-or-reduced lunch if their household income is $40,793 or less. Under SB 969, the tax scholarship credits would be available to those whose four-member households earn $122,379.
Seriously? State tax dollars would help pay for the private education of children from a family of four earning more than $122,000 a year? This is class warfare, using the public coffers to transfer wealth to people way above the state's median income -- in fact, almost double state's 2010 median income of $60,830 for a four-person family.
Other than meeting the financial threshold, the only other requirement is that the scholarship student live in an area where a school is on the needs-improvement list. The student doesn't even have to attend that school. The student already may be attending private school and now the student would be eligible for the scholarship.
Further, scholarship eligibility remains with the student throughout their public education life, even if their family moves into an area with schools not on the low-performing list. In addition, one child's eligibility in a family means that every child in the family is automatically eligible -- even those not yet born.
It may be through a circuitous route, but this is a voucher scheme, pure and simple. You can put earrings on a pig, but it's still a pig. And it stinks.
Mark my words: This is not going to help those who need help the most. It's going to feather the financial nest of those who decide they want private, not public, education for their children. Or those who are looking for another means of sheltering income.
The problems won't become apparent overnight. It will take some time to assess the impact of a program that not only reduces state revenues (meaning less money available for public education) but also cherry-picks the best students from struggling schools.
And the public's attention span, being what it is in modern America, is notoriously short. Far too many will wake up one day, some years down the line, wondering how the hell we got to the point that our schools were obliterated.
This session's shenanigans will all-too-soon be forgotten amidst the torrent of everyday life -- births and deaths, weddings and graduations, jobs secured and retirements taken.
No doubt some pushing these "reforms" believe they will make a difference. Others, though, clearly have an anti-public education bias -- preferring private or home schools, often because of the opportunities to require religious training. And, frankly, some are all about the money -- coveting the tax break or viewing education as a potential revenue source for their private business interests (think private prisons).
Remember this: "Reform" is the most over-used word in the political lexicon. "Change" isn't necessarily "reform." "Reform" means to "improve." But "change" scares people, so it is best sold politically as "reform."
Even if what it really means is that you, and the state's public schools, are about to be ordered to bend over and ... well, you get my drift.
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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