In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread. –Anatole France
As neoliberalism takes hold in both parties of the Oklahoma Legislature, privatization of schools seems to be inevitable. The common rhetoric is that public schools waste money and are failing to teach their students; but is this true? And what is the impact of privatization across socioeconomic lines?
Are public schools failing?
At the State Board of Education meeting in July 2014, Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi recognized Oklahoma’s two United States Presidential Scholars. “It is my pleasure to recognize these young men and women as being among the most distinguished high school graduates in the nation,” she said. “I know our state will be stronger because of their contribution.” However, just moments before praising the two youths, Barresi lashed out against two State Board members who changed their positions on policy, stating sharply, “No student of a public school reached their full potential in the last year,” while one of those underachieving public school students was standing next to her with a Presidential medal.
The two Board members stayed firm to their position of delaying the testing of a private school voucher system in Oklahoma, which eventually fizzled out of the political conversation in Oklahoma City (likely as a result of the election of Joy Hofmeister to Superintendent of Public Instruction). This does, though, raise a question: what is the purpose of a private school voucher system in the first place? It stands to reason that proponents of such a system likely support it because they ostensibly believe that public schools are failing.
Seemingly unrelated, income inequality in Oklahoma has been growing since the 1990s.  In particular, the poorest quintile‘s income has decreased by 7.5%, while the richest quintile’s income has increased by 7.7%. This is important because there is a direct correlation between income and test scores. 
The implication is this: even if schools test better across every one of those quintiles, the overall average can still decrease. Over the last few decades, the increasing inequality in wages has led there to be more working poor and lower middle class people, many of whom were previously middle class or upper middle class. As a result, schools are continually improving across every income level and still seeing a drop in their average test score. This is known as Simpson’s paradox, and it is generally considered to be harmful for public decision making by statisticians.
Recognizing this trend is important. In public discourse, rising income inequality is not generally seen to be linked with performance in school, and this can give a false impression of reality. With an understanding of the economic changes which are occurring in this state, however, we can ask better questions:
Why does income inequality affect schooling?
Is there anything that can be done to mitigate these effects?
Why is the wealth of Oklahoma going a small group at the expense of working people?
Are public schools wasteful?
For many years, legislators in Oklahoma City have been calling schools wasteful. Many of those politicians have proposed charter schools as one answer to this supposed wastefulness (Mary Fallin among them; she received Jeb Bush’s endorsement in her 2010 bid for Governor). In 2014, after over a decade of significant investment in charter schools by the state of Michigan, the Detroit Free Press published the results of a year-long study they performed on Michigan charter schools. Among their findings were the following:
- Charter schools spend $1 billion per year in state taxpayer money, often with little transparency.
- Some charter school board members were forced out after demanding financial details from management companies.
- State law does not prevent insider dealing and self-enrichment by those who operate schools.
- Charter schools as a whole fare no better than traditional schools in educating students in poverty.
These results are certainly alarming. That charter schools perform no better than public schools in educating those in poverty is certainly disappointing, especially considering poverty’s ramifications which were explored earlier.
In terms of waste, the other conclusions imply that charter schools are not a good method of reducing waste in the education budget. In particular, the lack of transparency in charter schools’ finances is troubling, and seems to counteract the only supposed benefit of charter schooling. In addition, the evidence that charter schools have ever reduced waste in education spending is scarce.
The inability of charter schools to reduce waste in education spending forces the question of whether or not public schools are wasteful at all. Education spending in Oklahoma is at a low point currently; adjusted for inflation, education is receiving 23.6% less funding in 2015 than it was in 2008, leading to the removal of non-essential courses from schools across the state.
Who wins and loses in privatization?
Privatization in Oklahoma will almost certainly be attempted through a voucher system, a system which subsidizes public school students in their transition to private schooling. This has been proposed before in the Oklahoma Senate as the Oklahoma Education Empowerment Scholarship Act.
That senate bill would allow for 80% of a student’s state appropriation to go toward the private school of his or her choosing. Just how much is 80%? Oklahoman public schools spend $7,672 per pupil on average, with about 49% of that money coming from state appropriation. All in all, the private school voucher system would give each student a voucher of just over $3,000. What kind of private education can be bought with $3,000?
The average tuition for a private high school in Oklahoma is $7,121. If a student applies a voucher to their tuition, he or she will still owe about $4,000 per year in tuition. How many Oklahoman working people can afford to spend an extra $4,000 per child on tuition? The average household income in Oklahoma is $45,339. If the average student wanted to attend private school, his or her parents would be required to spend over 10% of their after-tax income just on tuition. When other costs of attending private school are considered (transportation for our large rural population, extra-curricular fees, uniforms/clothing, etc.), it seems unlikely that many working families could afford a private education, even with vouchers.
Those who could afford private schooling under the proposed voucher system would be the most well-off among us: members of the upper middle class and upper class. In other words, the only people who could afford private schooling even with a voucher system are the people who can afford it already. Oklahoman working families would not be able to send their children to private school, and they would be hit with the cost of these vouchers; wealthy Oklahomans would effectively get a $3,000 tax break per child, while working families pay their taxes to support them.
With this in mind, it becomes clear who wins and loses in privatization: those who are wealthy become even wealthier, and working people suffer even more.