Friday Freakout: Super Says Public Ed Funds Are for School Infrastructure, Not Your Kid

One of the most common arguments put forth by opponents of school choice is that public dollars should not flow to private institutions. Consider, for example, this Facebook comment from John Herzig, superintendent of the Shidler (Oklahoma) Public Schools:

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But of course the education of our children isn’t like a road or running water, goods that must be available on demand and used by all. Like health care for the elderly, it is a particular benefit intended for particular people at a particular time in their life. A wise and generous people that decides to provide this benefit doesn’t insist that Grandma go to the public hospital for her medical care — they pay whatever doctor she decides will provide the care she needs. We believe that everyone in society benefits when our senior citizens have access to necessary health care, so all of us who work pay to make sure our seniors have access to the health care they need. We trust that when our time comes, the same support will be there for us.

Education works the same way. We all pay to educate our children, because we believe an educated citizenry is indispensable to a free society. We pay before we have children, we pay while they are in school, and we pay long after they have finished. We pay even if we never have children. All a parent asks is that, when the time comes to educate my own children, I am permitted to use the public resources allocated to my child (there is a reason schools call it “per-pupil” spending) in the way that is best for him or her.

As anyone who has taken the time to study the design of most choice programs can tell you, choice parents are even willing to take less than their share of public dollars and leave the rest to the public schools. But there is no good reason why public support for education is contingent upon people’s willingness to be strong-armed into attending a public school chosen for them by invisible and arbitrary district lines.

Later in the same comment thread, Supt. Herzig re-emphasizes his point: “What I don’t agree with is using taxpayer funds to pay for private institutions outside the public system.”

We find this hard to believe. For example, does Supt. Herzig oppose the common practice of using taxpayer funds to pay for some Oklahoma pre-K students to attend private (often church-affiliated) institutions? Does he also oppose the practice of providing veterans public funds to attend the colleges and universities of their choice?

As anyone who has taken the time to study the design of most choice programs can tell you, choice parents are even willing to take less than their share of public dollars and leave the rest to the public schools.

If a profoundly disabled child showed up at the elementary school in Shidler next month asking for her free education — an education that’s going to cost $200,000 annually to provide — Supt. Herzig couldn’t be blamed for doing what many of his fellow Oklahoma superintendents do every year: requesting that taxpayer funds be used to pay for education at a private institution outside the public system (by leveraging the child’s federally required Individualized Education Plan (IEP)).

If a newly minted Shidler High School graduate wanted to enroll next month at, say, Oklahoma Baptist University or Oral Roberts University, wouldn’t Supt. Herzig want that student to have access to an Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant (OTEG) or an Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP) grant?

Our point is that taxpayer funds flow to private institutions all the time. And not just in education. It is well understood in all areas of government that just because the government provides a service doesn’t necessarily mean the government has to produce that service.

The government provides food stamps, for example, but the government doesn’t own and operate grocery stores — much less demand that citizens shop at the government-owned grocery store closest to their house. Citizens are free to patronize the privately owned grocery store of their choice.

The government provides health care, as we mentioned, but (thankfully) that doesn’t mean patients can go to only a government hospital such as a VA hospital. Citizens are free to take their Medicaid or Medicare dollars and go to the private doctor or hospital of their choice.

The government provides for the common defense, but the government doesn’t build its own planes and missiles. Companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin do that.

The same principle should prevail in education. “Every country in the world except North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba allows parents to choose schools,” says Dr. Charles Glenn, a professor at Boston University’s School of Education. And “every Western democracy except the United States provides public funding to support those choices.”

The truth is that using economic blackmail to lock students into public schools that might not work for them has been disastrous for public education. No single institution can successfully educate students with a multitude of different problems and needs. Just as in every other sector of the economy, we need special institutions that are skilled in meeting separate needs. Asking public schools to be all things to all people makes it all the more likely that they will fail at their core function. When our society finally learns that a publicly funded education does not mean it must be a publicly provided education, our public schools will be freed to provide the best possible product to their core constituency — the overwhelming majority of our children. It will be up to them to make the most of that opportunity.

One final note in closing: Later in the comment thread, Supt. Herzig asks another commenter, “BTW, just where has school choice raised the level of education and could you please for once provide facts?” For our part, we are happy to do so. As Greg Forster has documented, “Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.”

So what, again, is the harm in offering parents other options?

Andrew C. Spiropoulos is a professor of law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law and the Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). Brandon Dutcher is OCPA’s senior vice president.