Poverty and Vouchers

The “Oklahoma Education Savings Account” AKA House Bill 3398 seems to have struck a chord with educators in Oklahoma.  For those who haven’t been following the numerous twitter conversations, this “Savings Account” is another word for “voucher” which is pretty much a cuss word to public school educators.

Rep Nelson, the “author” of this bill is very proud of it and rightfully so.  It is his bill or at the very least, one he got from ALEC.  Rob Miller does a great job of describing what ALEC is and is not on his blog.  I won’t say that everything ALEC supplies to state legislators is bad.  But, as voters and tax payers, I think we deserve to know when a bill is introduced if it is actually born and raised out of the needs and opinions of Oklahoma voters or if it is mass produced in a secret room somewhere.  Maybe it’s that pesky idea of local control.Okeducationtruth has two blogs detailed what is in the bill.  You can find those here and here.  It is fairly straight forward and confusing at the same time.  If a family has an income below the official “free and reduced lunch (FRL)” limit, you will be eligible to receive 90% of your child’s per pupil funding (which was approximately 3,000$ in 2013) on a debit card that can be used for a variety of approved expenses which are all detailed in the text of the bill.  If your family is between the FRL and 1.5 x FRL, you get 60% of that $3,000.  And if  you are between 1.5 x FRL and 2 x FRL, you get 30%.

But, here is the problem.  The supports of vouchers always couch their arguments under the guise of school choice for our most needy and high poverty students.   Of course, the students in the highest poverty areas end up in the worst schools.  Right?  They need a way out?  Right?

I was one of those trying to carry on a twitter conversation with Rep. Nelson.  For those of you who are non-tweeters, this is not as easy as it looks.  I asked questions.  He asked me questions back.  I tried to answer.  He asked more questions.

Two of those questions he posed to me gave me reason to pause.  They were both incredibly loaded question in which there was no good way to answer.  He knew that.  That is why he asked them.  

The questions were:  Do I believe that education is the path out of poverty? and What does it take for a school to be “fully funded?”  

I could never have answered either question via twitter.  So, I turned to my seldom used blog.

1) Do I believe that education is the path out of poverty?   If I answer yes… then why wouldn’t I be in favor of voucher to give choice to our most venerable students.  If I answer no… what kind of heartless creature am I?   So, my short answer is:  No…and yes.  Education is but one piece of the puzzle.  I firmly believe and have witnessed first hand, that the true path out of poverty for students involves: relationship with mentors, being exposed to opportunities that are not a typical part of their “world”, support for family and sometime a paradigm shift in their ideas of what education means.  All of these can be accomplished in the public school setting when schools look outside of the box and are able to address the needs of the whole child instead of just the child who will take a test in April.   Of course, private schools, home schools, and vitural schools can all provide an education.  Can they provide the other factors that are vital for the success of any student?  Sure.  But is it fair to say that a child will succeed or not simply because of the address of their school?     

2) What does it take for a school to be “fully funded?”  Again, no easy answer, except maybe “More than we have now.”   I would also posit that a fully funded school means that schools can hire enough teachers to keep class size below the research based recommendations.  I would posit that a fully funded school doesn’t have to choose between repairing a building or hiring additional teachers assistants for special needs classrooms.  I posit that a fully funded school can engage students in authentic experiences including field trips to local colleges, field trips to museums and science centers, guest speakers, and technology integrated lessons with real world connections.

I can not give a number, but I would respectfully suggest that increasing funding to the level we were at 5 years ago would be a start.  And fully funding (or removing) the myriad of reforms and meaningless mandates, like the Reading Sufficiency Act, TLE, and. ACE remediation; ALL that have yet to be funded at an adequate level.  Okeducationtruth’s does a great job at providing charts, tables, graphs, and non-education explanations of funding.  Follow it and read it.

I strongly believe that education is vital for all students and all students deserve the best education possible.  Are all public schools perfect?  Heavens no.  But,  I believe public schools and public school teachers can provide that meaningful education for children, given the right support from the State Department of Education and the state Legislature.  

Voucher programs are based on the flawed logic that public schools are one size fits all, that they are broken, and that private schools are fundamentally better in some way.  Public school does not have to be “one size fits all”  For some schools, supporting students means providing community outreach program to make sure children and families in their community have access to basic needs.   In other schools, it could mean a partnership with the local hospital to create a clinic for families. Support for students means access to concurrent enrollment for high school and opportunities for students to visit college campuses and shadow adults in a variety of fields. Support for students also means proving teachers ongoing professional development targeting best practice of teaching, focusing on what works for all types of learners and the unique needs of the specific community.  I guarantee that high poverty students in the Tulsa and OKC metro have different needs that high poverty students in the rural communities of Smithville or Laverne.  And $2,700 for a student to go to a private school is not what we need.  

In fact, I think  for our most vulnerable students and their families, $2700 (90% of the per pupil funding) is like a movie teaser.  True some private schools will waive the remainder of their tuition, which could range anywhere from $5,000 a year to $20,000 a year.  But, what if the only private school a child can afford, even with the voucher, is 30 minutes across town?  What if they have uniforms?  What if they don’t serve students with IEPs?  What if they are full?  What if the closest private school to Smithville is two hours away?  The bill does say that the voucher can be used at virtual schools, but that is already free for all Oklahoma Schools according to state statues.  I guess Rep. Nelson is suggesting that we go ahead and pay them double for their voucher students, since they already get a huge chuck of the common ed funding.    

Research shows that many of the neediest students who take advantage of a voucher end of returning to their home school within a year because of those “Extras” that the voucher doesn’t cover.   This bill is setting up the same situation.  It will not help our neediest students.  It will help the middle class families who are on the edge of being able to afford private school pay that bill a little easier.  Heck, my own daughter would qualify for the 30% savings account voucher.  I wonder how far that 1,200$ would go?

Rep. Nelson makes the claim that if even one child takes advantage of this bill, it is worth it.  But I would ask if those students have tried to apply directly to those private schools for a needs based scholarship?  They are available.  Virtual school is already a FREE option.  Students can already qualify for free tutoring (which is also an allowable expense for this saving voucher)  Positive Tomorrows, one of the schools Nelson gives praise to in his press release, is already tuition free.  Its students go there for free.  (It serves strictly homeless students, but that is apparently not the point).  It is also a full service community outreach school, providing more than just education to its students and families.  

Why can’t we look at what makes Positive Tomorrow work and try to replicate that within our high poverty communities?

On a side note:  SDE recently moved the FAY cut to OCT 1, claiming if a student is enrolled in a school and receiving money, they should be held accountable for that student.  But as of yet, private schools are except from accountability of the A/F report cards and ACE graduation requirements, as well as the third grade retention mess.  Our Superintendent has often stated that if it is important to learning, it can be measured. Yet, we do not measure the learning taking place at private schools.  If this type of education is the key for students to break out of poverty, shouldn’t we be measuring how they are doing… so we can use it a model of what works?  Because that is the whole reason we need the A/F reports cards in Oklahoma, according to our SDE.

 It is late and I feel like I have rambled enough.  Be sure this is a bill I will be following, among others.

And I hope to blog more.  Maybe not as much or as well as Okeducationtruth or Rob Miller (my blogger role models), but I am all about getting information out there.

Until next time…


4 thoughts on “Poverty and Vouchers

  1. Jeanne Davis says:

    Great response to his questions! However, I think that it is incumbent upon districts to do a better job communicating costs associated educating AND providing social services to their students. Transparency in this area could go a long way in garnering support for additional funding.

    • Agreed! We are at a time in Oklahoma when parents are taking a more active role in the political scene behind education. Schools need to be proactive. I don’t think it is something schools are “hiding” from the public, but I do think it is questions that the public have never asked before.

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