Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Educational Vouchers are a BAD Idea for Oklahoma Students and Families (HB 3398)

Update 21 Feb 2014: Please see the clarifications in the comments to this post. A federal NCLB waiver is needed instead of a state waiver, as I thought when I wrote this post. Also there are important reasons why PT specifically would be hampered rather than helped/supported by the same regulations which govern public schools today.

For over twenty years, different conservative groups in the United States have advocated for and promoted “educational vouchers” as a way to (ostensibly) improve public education and learning outcomes in public schools. As both a masters and doctoral student in education, I’ve studied voucher programs and voucher proposals. Whether you’ve studied these proposals in the past or not, if you’re an Oklahoma voter today is the day to decide what you think about educational vouchers. Oklahoma state representatives Jason Nelson (R-OKC) and Tom Newell (R-Seminole) have proposed House Bill 3398. According to OSSBA, if made into law this bill would:

create the Oklahoma Education Savings Account (ESA) Act. If passed, Oklahoma would become the second state in the nation, behind Arizona, to have Education Savings Accounts. ESA’s are accounts for eligible students to pay education expenses incurred through enrollment in a non-public school settings. To be eligible, a student must commit to withdraw from enrollment in a public school in Oklahoma AND meet certain income requirements as set forth in the bill.

Educational vouchers are a BAD idea for Oklahoma students and for families. This evening I emailed members of the Oklahoma House Appropriations and Budget Committee (which hears this bill tomorrow (Wednesday, February 19th) at 3:30 pm and sent them the following message. I encourage you to do the same and copy/paste/modify any of this message you want in your own communication with them. I titled the subject of my email, “Please vote NO on HB 3398 (and read my email, please!)”

My name is Wesley Fryer. I am the parent of three children enrolled in Oklahoma City Public Schools, and I am a grade 4-5 STEM classroom teacher in one of our metro-area suburban school districts. I have a PhD in education and have studied vouchers and voucher programs in the past. I am writing to strongly encourage you NOT to support HB 3398, proposed by Jason Nelson and Tom Newell. This legislation for an educational voucher program in Oklahoma would HARM rather than hurt students and teachers in our public schools. It would not improve learning conditions, learning resources, or learning outcomes in our schools.

This bill has been misrepresented by Jason Nelson and others as legislation to help poor students and poor families in Oklahoma. Specifically, Jason Nelson has argued this bill would support homeless children in Oklahoma City attending the Positive Tomorrows private school, which currently does not receive state funding. It is absolutely true that our state should fund the education of homeless students attending Positive Tomorrows, but it is FALSE that we need or should have a statewide voucher program to do this. All the Oklahoma legislature needs to do to provide funding for Positive Tomorrows is to pass a NCLB waiver, so the school could again operate as a public school as it did originally before NCLB. That is what the California legislature did for a similar school for homeless students in San Diego. Jason Nelson is trying to use Positive Tomorrows and the financial needs they have to educate some of our poorest students in Oklahoma as a misleading reason to pass a damaging voucher program which would have a devastating impact on the finances of our already financially strapped public schools.

I hope you read David Boren’s recent editorial, “Wake Up, Oklahoma!” It was printed by both The Daily Oklahoman and The Tulsa World. President Boren is right: We MUST make greater investments in our public schools (both K-12 and higher education) in Oklahoma to secure the bright future our children and grandchildren deserve. HB 3398 would take away needed funds from our public schools, our students, our teachers and our families and in many cases put them into the bank accounts of private companies and private schools. I am a Christian and an elder in our Edmond church, and I support both religious freedom and the option for families to choose a religious education for their children. We should not, however, fund religious schools with public tax dollars in our state. In addition, we need to stop rather than advance the push in our state to have more privately operated schools. When private companies run schools their investors and staff win financially, but our students and our state as a whole loses.

There are good reasons why more states in our nation don’t have educational voucher programs. They don’t work. Contrary to what Chubb and Moe wrote over 20 years ago (yes I read their original article in 1996) educational choice is NOT “a panacea.” Most poor families will opt to send their children to neighborhood schools, even if other alternative schools which appear to be better are available. ALL our neighborhood schools need and must be excellent, not just a few “charter schools.” We need to pursue an agenda which promotes educational excellence and TRANSFORMATION in our Oklahoma public schools, and I believe the teachers I work with on a daily basis are doing that. Just this past Saturday, we held an “EdCamp” event in Oklahoma City where an amazing array of innovative and creative teaching strategies were shared by Oklahoma teachers from around the metro area and our state. Innovation is all around us in education, but I guarantee you this voucher bill will not bring any of our schools more of it. It will do the reverse, in fact, further depleting the already meager budgets (less than we had in 2008) available to our Oklahoma schools and colleges.

I hope you will do your own research and not believe Jason Nelson when he claims, “the poor students and families in Oklahoma need this voucher system to get a good education.” That is simply not true. What our poorest students and families in Oklahoma need, as ALL students and families do, are excellent teachers and well-funded schools that provide the resources and learning opportunities which can engage and inspire them to reach their full potential.

We need to change course in our Oklahoma educational policies in many ways, but that path should NOT include adopting a statewide voucher system. An educational voucher system in Oklahoma would hurt students, it would hurt teachers, it would families, and it would hurt our state. Our poorest students and families (including those who are homeless) need and deserve the financial support of our state legislature, but that can and should come through an NCLB waiver rather than a statewide voucher program. Please oppose HB 3398 and vote to kill it so it will not advance further to a vote of the entire House.

Thank you for considering my ideas and opinions. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can provide more information to you or your committee as you deliberate the questions before you affecting Oklahoma education.

Wesley A. Fryer

This is the message I emailed Jason Nelson:

Representative Nelson:

I applaud your desire to change our Oklahoma laws and again permit public funding of Positive Tomorrows, which educates homeless children in Oklahoma City. As you know, they need funding support and the restoration of public funding to PT would be welcome.

I encourage you, however, to sponsor legislation which would provide a NCLB waiver for Positive Tomorrows so it could again operate as a public school. That is what that state of California did for a similar school in San Diego which serves homeless students.

I also encourage you to withdraw your proposed HB 3398. The voucher program you have proposed would be harmful to our public schools and the students and families they serve. This is true for the poor as well as wealthier families. Voucher programs do not promote innovation or excellence, they provide public funding for private schools (including parochial schools) and take away needed resources from students and teachers in our already financially strapped public schools.

We definitely need to work together to improve and transform our public schools in Oklahoma into 21st century community schools which serve a variety of different roles today. We do not need to remain in the status quo or return to the ways of the past, but we certainly don’t need move backward. A voucher program would move us backward. Please withdraw HB 3398.

Thank you for considering my ideas and opinions. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can provide more information to you or your committee as you deliberate the questions before you affecting Oklahoma education.

Wesley A. Fryer

Oklahoma State Capitol by Serge Melki, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Serge Melki 

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4 responses to “Educational Vouchers are a BAD Idea for Oklahoma Students and Families (HB 3398)”

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  2. Susan Griffith Agel Avatar
    Susan Griffith Agel

    Dr. Fryer, As the president of Positive Tomorrows, I must correct some misinformation in your article above as it pertains to our school. The NCLB waiver for Monarch School in San Diego is federal legislation, not state. In fact, there is a movement at the federal level to do away with the waiver, so every year Monarch fears for its funding. The possibility of expanding the waiver is slight and is not an option we would want to pursue.

    Frankly, Positive Tomorrows does not want to become a public school. That would bind the school to the practices of the public schools systems which have not been able to meet the needs of many homeless children that we serve. The red tape in accessing comprehensive psychological and educational testing, the lack of ability to manage and evaluate teachers to guarantee performance in the classroom, and loss of flexibility in managing each child’s needs would greatly inhibit our current performance level. Subjecting our students to yearly standardized tests as required in a public school would not be the best use of our teaching time. I could go on and on.

    It is true that the legislation would provide assistance to families outside of the ones we serve. However, families living in deep poverty are disenfranchised and live in a state of constant hopelessness, often not of their own making. Any bit of empowerment that we provide to them will reap dividends in terms of the success of their children across all levels.

  3. Sarah Carl Avatar
    Sarah Carl

    Dr. Fryer, my name is Sarah Carl and I am an elementary education major at the University of South Alabama. I agree that House Bill 3398 will not be beneficial like Nelson and Newell believe it will. Schools all across the country are having the same problem. How do they expect to give this money to the poor children so they can go to school, when the money was never there to begin with? I think instead of trying to help each child individually, they need to start at the core which is the schools themselves. If we help the schools and teachers, students would not have to move from public to private schools because they will have more of an equal opportunity for learning. Twitter: @sarah_carl11

  4. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Susan: Thanks for your clarifications and additional information regarding PT as well as Monarch School. I was misinformed about the waiver and didn’t realize it had to made at the federal level.

    I thoroughly agree that PT should not be subject to the mandated state testing and loss of flexibility which becoming a “normal” public school would entail. I think this situation highlights, however, how the mandates for teacher evaluation based on test scores and the focus on standardized testing in our schools currently do NOT meet student needs well in other schools either. I am in favor of a wholesale change in direction in our educational policies for Oklahoma schools which will stop the current over-emphasis on student test scores and provide all teachers and schools with flexibility to meet individual student needs, as you do at PT.

    There must be another way to provide state support and funding for your students other than a statewide voucher system. Based on what I’ve researched and learned about these programs, my understanding is that they take further funds away from public schools which are already financially challenged. They also provide public funding for parochial schools, as I mentioned in the post, and do not promote innovation or positive changes in public schools.

    Do you know of other ways state taxpayer dollars could support PT, which would require less drastic changes to state law than this proposed voucher program?

    Again thanks for your clarifications here, and thanks for your continued work and advocacy on behalf of Oklahoma students and families.