Sunday, August 26, 2007

A black market for school choice

[A version of this column by Brandon Dutcher appeared today in The Oklahoman.]

Another school year is under way, and I am reminded again that school choice is widespread in Oklahoma.

No, we don’t yet have the big enchilada — vouchers or tax credits — but we do have charter schools, magnet and specialty schools, interdistrict and intradistrict choice (albeit limited), privately funded K-12 vouchers, and more.

Heck, there’s even a black market for school choice. Some parents are so desperate to get a better education for their kids that they will lie about their place of residence.

Fortunately, the educrats have the situation under control. In August I drove by an Edmond middle school near my house and noticed that some modern-day George Wallaces had found a way to block the schoolhouse door: "MUST HAVE JUNE OR JULY UTILITY BILL," the sign proclaimed. "NO EXCEPTIONS."

Which brings us to the most common form of school choice in Oklahoma: real-estate-based school choice. Despite the higher home prices and property taxes in places like Edmond and Jenks, many people move there so their kids can attend the public schools. And we can’t let just anyone in, you understand.

If some poor inner-city girl, trapped in a violent, drug-infested school where she isn’t learning to read or do math, wants to attend this Edmond middle school, well, sorry. No exceptions.

Adding insult to injury, not only are many low-income kids trapped in bad schools, but their parents have to subsidize the school choices of the more affluent. You see, middle- and upper-income folks tend to itemize on their federal tax returns so they can get those juicy deductions for property taxes and mortgage interest. Many would have a hard time affording their homes if the federal income tax system didn’t favor them over their lower-income, non-itemizing brethren. School-choice litigator Clint Bolick calls this "the largest school choice program in the United States."

It’s no secret that parents want more choices. In July, I commissioned Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates (CHS) to ask 500 Oklahoma voters a simple question: "If you had a school-age child and were given a voucher or a tax credit that would cover tuition to any of the following, which would you personally choose for your child?"

Forty-nine percent of respondents statewide said they would choose a public school, while 43 percent said they would choose a private school. Ponder that. If Oklahoma parents were given a voucher or a tax credit, more than a quarter-million revenue units (children) in Oklahoma's public schools would head for the exits.

The demand for choice is even greater in Tulsa, where a full 55 percent of survey respondents said they would choose a private school, compared to 37 percent who would choose a public school. Earlier this year state Rep. Jabar Shumate (D-Tulsa) said, "I hear from my constituents all the time that they want more and better options for their children’s education." Apparently he wasn’t kidding.

Still, some folks don't want parents to have more and better options. In a recent letter to the editor published in The Oklahoman, Evelyn Walsh of Guthrie suggested that school choice is a bad idea because, well, the majority of Oklahomans might just choose a private school! After all, she pointed out, it’s unlikely that "people will opt for hamburger when T-bone steaks are available." Ouch. Not sure that’s the kind of defense the public-school establishment was looking for.

But it’s a telling comment nonetheless. People know what they know. The government-school monopoly leaves a lot to be desired; parents want more and better options. Which is why the teacher unions and their captive politicians have to do their own version of a George Wallace impersonation, blocking the schoolhouse door to keep the children in.

Yes, school choice is alive and well in Oklahoma — if you can afford it. Simply pay tuition to a private school, or buy a house near the public school of your choice.

If you can’t afford it, well, sorry. No exceptions.

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