Why even Oklahoma couldn’t pass a school voucher bill

Oklahoma Christian School in Edmond, Oklahoma, is one of 210 private schools in the state serving nearly 38,000 students. The school’s mission is to partner with families in educating the whole person to glorify God.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Don Parker, a former charter school board member who served three Oklahoma department of education administrations in various advisory roles, appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Education Next.

A bill to create a school-voucher program in Oklahoma failed earlier this year to win passage in the state legislature. Oklahoma is a state where 68% of those surveyed favor school choice, and yet this small school-choice bill, which was sponsored by the state senate’s president pro tempore and supported by the governor, was defeated.

In 2020, I was the executive director of an Oklahoma charter school authorized by the local public-school district. The district retained 5% of our public funding each year as its authorizing fee. When the state passed a law capping charter authorizing fees at 3% of public funding, the authorizer raised our rent in an amount equal to the fee reduction.

Both events highlight the critical flaw in the current K–12 education-reform movement: it underestimates the system’s hostility to innovation.

Even in a school-choice-friendly state like Oklahoma, even the narrowest of reforms only occasionally survive the challenge mounted by the traditional system. When they do survive, the system easily counteracts them. Our public-education system is a bureaucratic monopoly controlled by special-interest groups and, for all intents and purposes, immune to change.

The U.S. compulsory-education system works for no one. It is expensive, achievement lags internationally, teachers are leaving the profession, and parents feel powerless. Despite 60 years of increasing costs and disappointing results, almost nothing has been done to fix the system. Adults argue and point fingers while kids and society pay the price for inaction. Progress in education has stagnated.

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