How Could Vouchers Affect Oklahoma Schools? Let's Look To Milwaukee

Apr 5, 2017

Imagine your child is not doing well in school, and you desperately want to send them somewhere else. 

You tried to transfer them to another public school but were told there’s no room.

You don't have a lot of money, can’t move, and you definitely don’t have money for private school. So now what?

Robert Ruiz, the associate director of Choice Matters, thinks this is where a school voucher could be beneficial.

“The fact of the matter is that I have parents coming in to my office every day, many crying, because they are desperately looking for other solutions,” he said.

With a school voucher, a parent could take some of the money the state spends educating their child—upwards of $3,000—and use it toward private school tuition.

Ruiz argues this gives low-income parents a choice they wouldn’t have otherwise. And his organization is really only focused on low-income families.

“We’re pretty laser focused on the parents that don’t have the choice," he says. "They can’t move, they can’t afford private school tuition.”

Oklahoma currently has a small voucher program for kids with disabilities called the Lindsay Nicole Henry Scholarship. But over the last few years there’s been a push in the legislature to expand it.

The latest voucher proposal to gain traction is Senate Bill 560 by Senator Rob Standridge of Norman.

It would allow low-income families in Tulsa, Cleveland, and Oklahoma counties to apply for an Education Savings Account, which is similar to a voucher, but a little more expansive. With an ESA parents can use the money for tutors, or curriculum—things beyond just private school tuition.

It’s a contentious proposal and Standridge got a lot of pushback from other legislators.

The Oklahoma State School Board Association also estimated that in its first year the program could divert as much $30 million away from already cash-strapped public schools.

But still, Ruiz supported it.

“Because these parents can’t lose another year,” he said. “They can’t lose another two years, they can’t lose eight years.”

At its core the program is similar to one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that’s been running for 25 years. It targets low-income families, and inner-city school districts.

Howard Fuller is a former Milwaukee Public School superintendent and a supporter of the school choice program there, despite some of it’s flaws.

“If you’re intellectually honest, what you try to do, is you try to figure out does the upside outweigh the downside.”

Fuller says there’s been lots of upsides and downsides to the Milwaukee program.

“The upside is that low-income and working-class parents, who prior to this have not had the ability to choose, they will now have that power,” Fuller said.

But, he said, they don’t always choose the best schools.

“There was this free market theory that people are only going to choose good schools, so if there was a bad school people weren’t going to choose it.”

But that hasn’t been the case. People created some really bad schools as a way to cash in on the voucher program in Milwaukee, and Fuller said, in this way, the program may have hurt some kids.

Most of the underperforming schools that benefited from voucher money have now closed, but Fuller doesn’t think a few bad schools make the entire program a mistake.

“If a program exists and people create bad schools, and people go there, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have choice,” he said. “That means we’ve got to do a better job to make sure people have quality schools.”

And so, for Fuller, accountability is key.

In Milwaukee, if a kid uses a voucher to get in to a private school, they still have to take the state test. And those test scores show they don’t perform any better than their peers in the public schools. However, graduation rates have increased between four and seven percent for kids who use vouchers.

Overall, Fuller thinks the program has been a success.

“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of kids who are better off because of the program,” he said.

As for the impact on Milwaukee Public Schools, some of them have shut down but it’s difficult to determine whether that’s because of the voucher program.

The percent of students with special needs has also increased over the years. And opponents argue vouchers have siphoned off the more involved parents.

Fuller says he still supports the public school system, but he thinks parents should have choice.

“I didn’t believe then, and I don’t believe now, that the money belonged to the system,” he said. “I thought the money belonged to taxpayers… and there could be more than one delivery system to try to deliver public education.”

Others say, just focus on making the public schools great, and you won’t need vouchers or choice.

Sen. Standridge laid over his voucher bill, SB560, until the next Oklahoma legislative session, and said he’ll push forward with it then. At that time, there could be a whole slew of new voucher proposals on the table.