Friday, March 4, 2016

Fresh ideas for the ESA debate

[Guest post by Ben Harris]

The current ESA debate could benefit from a fresh approach. Modifications to the current ESA legislation could allow passage with a clear majority, and would definitely smoke out some of the intellectually dishonest arguments being made.

Both sides should buy into these compromises because neither side can achieve their ultimate objectives without some cooperation from the other side, given both the makeup of the legislature and public opinion. Opponents will never be able to get a material increase in resources for education because many choice advocates feel as though the money is wasted without the force of competition to ensure quality and efficiency. The choice advocates will continue to get thwarted because those in the education establishment believe resources are the problem and that ESA’s would simply make it worse.

I say give both sides what they want. Perhaps gratification is delayed due to the state budget crisis, but mutual goals could be achieved over time with a piece of legislation that could pass now.

Here are the basic revisions that should be put into the ESA legislation:

(1) The percentage of the state per pupil funding that determines the amount of the ESA is always a point of controversy, and although most choice advocates want the ESA to equal 100 percent of the per pupil amount, any percentage would potentially expand choices for students. Using this year as a baseline, the annual percentage increase in the statewide average per pupil expenditure shall be equal to the percentage of the total statewide per pupil expenditure that the state will pay into an ESA. In other words, ESA’s will become a lever to push more resources into education. When the state doubles the statewide average per pupil expenditure Oklahoma will have an ESA equal to 100 percent of the per student amount received by public schools, and as a result a truly competitive education marketplace will exist to deliver quality and efficiency. If history is any indicator this would mean that we would likely have a partial ESA within the next three years and eventually have a 100 percent ESA.

(2) A legitimate criticism from ESA opponents is that we are giving public money to schools that do not have any public accountability requirements on them. The debate has centered on trying to put public school mandates on the private schools that accept the ESA. This would deter many, if not most, private schools from wanting to accept an ESA at all, as they will want no part of the mind-boggling level of overregulation that adds little value and lots of costs to the pursuit of academic achievement. So why not go the other way? Both sides largely agree that public education has way too many regulations, so why not use ESA's as a lever to reduce mandates in public schools? Any public school district that has a single student leave their school to attend a private school using an ESA triggers the option that the public school's board may vote to exempt themselves from all state regulations and be under the same regulatory framework that their "competition" is under. In other words, allow public schools to put themselves on a level playing field with their competition if they choose to do so locally, instead of trying to regulate another sector of education under a system of mandates that by all accounts is broken.

These changes in the bill would definitely change the whole debate, and may result in passage. The faster we are able to increase resources as a state for education, the faster we have a fully funded ESA that is significant enough to attend nearly any school in the state, private or public. This would create real competition and all the benefits to the consumer that it produces. This aligns incentives for all sides of the debate, and will finally allow policymakers to determine the true cost of a quality education as determined by the free market, not the politics of the budget process.

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