Thinking About Choice

Are Education Funds for the System, or for Your Child?

By Andrew Spiropoulos and Brandon Dutcher 

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 comment from John Herzig, superintendent of the Shidler Public Schools:

“There are many miles of state highway, rest stops, road signs, state parks and other state-funded infrastructure that I’m sure I will never travel or utilize in my lifetime. I do, however, pay for these services as part of the greater good of our state. I live on a rather dusty country road and should I want to blacktop it for my convenience I’m sure that the county would be glad to allow me to do so AT MY EXPENSE. I don’t expect my neighbors to do it for me. Want a private education? Feel free to do so at YOUR EXPENSE.”

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.

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.

Superintendent Herzig also says: “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 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?

If a profoundly disabled child showed up at the elementary school in Shidler asking for her free education — an education that’s going to cost $200,000 annually to provide — 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.

If a newly minted Shidler High School graduate wanted to enroll at, say, Oklahoma Baptist University or Oral Roberts University, wouldn’t Herzig want that student to have access to an Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant or an Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program 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.”

No single institution can successfully educate students with a multitude of different problems and 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.