“As more and more states embrace school choice,” I wrote in The Oklahoman 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 as we celebrate National School Choice Week this week, I believe educational freedom will continue to spread.
National School Choice Week is all about the idea that “parents and children should have the ability to choose high-performing traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, virtual schools or homeschooling.”
Here's one idea I'm particularly fond of: preschool choice.
Oklahoma is “the leader in early child care education,” The Oklahoman reported on April 29, 2012. In one sense, that's true. Some Oklahoma public schools proudly offer “extended day care,” for example. Others will happily enroll your 6-week-old student in an “education” program whose “curriculum” encourages “language enrichment” and “problem solving.”
In August 2011, 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 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.” After all, universal pre-K 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 (ESAs).
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.
Dutcher is vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank. National School Choice Week starts on Jan. 27.