There has been a lot of discussion about vouchers and ESA’s in Oklahoma and about the philosophical implications of having them in our state. This post intentionally does not address them. The online discussion about the role of government in education is lively and has been well debated. There has not, however, been nearly enough discussion of the language of HB2949. This post is about beginning to engage that discussion. Voucher programs are not new. They have seemingly produced no real boon to learning. This has been found whenever voucher students are tested. But the ESA program is new. Only two states have one and there are problems in both. The bill is based on the same concepts but there are differences.
What are we passing?
There is no substitute for looking over the entire bill. I have just scanned sections. But here are some things that jumped out at me. Hopefully others will have a look. Feedback from attorneys or current or retired judges could prove invaluable.
HB2949, hereinafter referred to as “the bill”, requires the state department to write a large number of regulations. Some concern approved “providers” (vendors) for various services. That is reasonable. Businesses and government entities have approved vendors. But this is going to be a large undertaking for students all over our state. We are talking about a mammoth task, both developing the approval process and then approving each provider. All of this undertaken by an underfunded department.
What will be policies that will determine the decisions? For example, it would be interesting to know if all tutors and teachers were required to have state certification or other qualifications. Or perhaps they should have liability insurance. Liability insurance is required to cut down trees. Surely teaching children is as important. How about background checks? Public school teachers have them yearly. I am sure all of the home school co-ops in Oklahoma would like to pay to have all of their instructors and others who help students background checked. Yet it would be “reasonable” for the state department to require all of this. A lot of important decisions will need to be made that are not addressed by the bill. Given realities of politics as we know it, this could change every time there is an election. Will courts get involved? Courts get involved in a lot of things these days. Poorly written laws can have huge unintended consequences.
The bill prevents the purchase of computers and other equipment and instruments. But immediately after this the bill states: “Nothing shall prohibit the renting of such items” This is wide open for abuse and fraud. Perhaps it could be a “rent to own” agreement. Perhaps the “rent” could equal the purchase price. This is more poor language to be sure.
There really is no consideration of the establishment and management of the new bureaucracy that will be needed to process all of the yearly renewal forms, including verifying that the “nationally recognized norm reference tests” are adequate to justify the renewal. This is all left up to “the department” (of Education.)
There will be a large amount of “savings account” money to be accounted for as well as paying a financial provider to issue and manage the cards. Fraud and theft control will need to be a part. What happens if the 5% of the money allowed is not sufficient? Is there any reason to think 5% is enough? The bill actually allows for the Department of Education to ask the legislature for additional funds if the 5% is inadequate. But we all know that there are no additional funds available in Oklahoma. This is not the year to be trying this out.
Yes, there are voucher programs in other states, but this version of ESA legislation is a untested and new. Perhaps another better funded state should launch this program so we could learn from the inevitable mistakes. We could learn from the mistakes of others rather than making them ourselves. We just can’t afford it. This is exactly how Common Core was passed. The standards were not even published when they were adopted. Let’s learn from that mistake as well. We have made enough mistakes in Oklahoma government lately.