By Brandon Dutcher
Special to The Sun
“As more and more states embrace school choice,” I wrote in 2007, “it’s reasonable to believe Oklahoma will too.” Indeed, Oklahoma in 2010 enacted school choice for special-needs children, and in 2011 a tax credit for donations that help children afford private schools.
And coming off a successful National School Choice Week (the week of Jan. 27, which Gov. Mary Fallin also proclaimed to be School Choice Week in Oklahoma), I believe that educational freedom will continue to spread.
Parents should have the ability to choose for their children traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, homeschooling or even a customized menu of options.
Here’s one idea I’m particularly fond of: Preschool choice.
Oklahoma is “the leader in early child care education,” The Oklahoman reported in its “Education & careers” supplement on April 29. In one sense, that’s true. Some Oklahoma public schools proudly offer “extended day care,” for example. Incredibly, some will even enroll your 6-week-old “student” in an “education” program whose “curriculum” encourages “language enrichment” and “problem solving.”
In August 2011, the respected survey firm SoonerPoll asked Oklahoma voters: “In two important ways, Oklahoma is a national leader in early childhood education. First, among all the states Oklahoma has the highest percentage of 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs. Secondly, Oklahoma is one of the few states that offer a tax break for stay-at-home parents. Assuming there is a limited amount of money, which of the following do you think should take precedence: Increasing the amount of money spent on preschool programs for 4-year-olds, or expanding the tax break for parents who stay at home with their 4-year-olds?”
Oklahoma parents prefer the tax break by a margin of 55 percent to 31 percent. Among women, it’s 51 percent to 35 percent. Among women with household income under $35,000, it’s 55 percent to 29 percent.
Parents want choices.
In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama lauded Oklahoma’s commitment to state-funded preschool programs. But in their book “Disrupting Class,” Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and his co-authors concluded that universal pre-K is “an ineffective mechanism for addressing the challenge of better preparing children for school.”
Dr. Christensen is not the only scholar unwilling to conclude that universal pre-K is a good public investment. Preschool expert Russ Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, also finds the evidence unpersuasive. Just last month, Dr. Whitehurst, now a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, wrote that “advocates of universal pre-K point to research conducted in Tulsa, to support their claim that middle-class children as well as children from low-income at-risk backgrounds can benefit from a pre-K program delivered by the state. … Unfortunately the research design of the Tulsa study is critically flawed when used to draw conclusions about the impact of a state pre-K program.”
Heritage Foundation scholar Lindsey Burke and others have even had the temerity to point out that Oklahoma’s fourth-grade reading scores have actually declined since the state implemented universal government preschool.
Universal preschool is expensive, and not everyone needs it or wants it. In a world of scarce resources that have alternative uses, let’s redirect some of that money to the tax break mentioned above, or to Education Savings Accounts.
An ESA for preschoolers would work like this: If you don’t enroll your 4-year-old in the local public school, the state portion ($3,461) of your child’s per-pupil expenditure would be deposited into an ESA at your bank. You could use that money for private-school tuition, curricular materials or other educational expenses. If you don’t spend it all, save the rest for college.
Parents get some much-needed flexibility, and public schools get less-crowded classrooms and higher expenditures per pupil (given that some local and federal dollars would remain in public schools).
Today one in five Arizona students is eligible for an ESA. Here’s hoping the idea comes to Oklahoma.
BRANDON DUTCHER, an Edmond resident, is vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free-market think tank.