Note: On Feb. 7, 2019, this post was updated to include new survey results.
Leaders in the public-education community often point out (correctly) that the vast majority of Oklahoma students attend traditional public schools. Edmond school board member Meredith Exline, for example, put it this way: “Oklahomans have already made their ‘choice’ when it comes to education. More than 90 percent of parents have chosen public schools and are demanding they be properly funded.”
Of course, that’s like saying Americans in the 1970s decisively “chose” Ma Bell for telephone services, or like believing that subjects of the British Empire loved East India Company tea. But what do Oklahoma parents really want? What type of school would they select for their own children if financial costs and transportation were of no concern? According to a new statewide survey of 502 likely Oklahoma voters commissioned by OCPA and conducted by Cor Strategies (margin of error: plus/minus 4.37 percent), roughly half of Oklahomans would choose a traditional public school. And roughly half would make other choices.
A subsequent statewide survey, commissioned by OCPA and conducted by WPA Intelligence from January 29 to January 31, 2019 (margin of error ±4.4 percent), got nearly identical results. The demand for options is strong. Leaders in the public education community know this better than anyone. These educators fear what will happen if parents are empowered to vote with their feet—and they use surprisingly apocalyptic language to describe it. Former Tulsa superintendent Keith Ballard, for example, says education savings accounts (ESAs) would have “a disastrous effect on public schools.” Former Norman superintendent Joe Siano says ESA legislation “will harm our public schools beyond the point of no return.” Former Sand Springs administrator Rob Miller says ESAs would deal a “mortal blow” to public education and do “irreparable harm to our nation.”
Not exactly a vote of confidence in their own product. As Isabel Paterson asked 75 years ago, “Do you think nobody would willingly entrust his children to you to pay you for teaching them? Why do you have to extort your fees and collect your pupils by compulsion?”
It’s not difficult to get 90 percent of parents to “choose” public schools when you’ve got the tax collector on your side. But as these survey results make clear, parents want more than one choice.