Correction: Author Jim Machell's title was incorrectly reported in the endnote to this column. The mistake has been corrected.
Recently, Oklahoma’s Legislature has received high marks for keeping taxes for the state’s citizens relatively manageable. Using a rating system that includes property tax, individual income tax and sales or excise taxes, the financial website Wallet Hub found Oklahoma was in the top six states with regard to its low tax burden, meaning that taxes are lower in Oklahoma than in 44 other states.
The state’s healthy finances were achieved during a fall in oil prices and despite Oklahoma’s low 3.2% tax rate on drilling. George Mason University ranks Oklahoma’s finances among the five strongest in the nation. In October, Moody’s upgraded Oklahoma’s credit outlook from “stable” to “positive.”
In the midst of this careful money management, legislators are considering allowing more unregulated charter schools. They are also considering school vouchers that will allow parents to send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. Oklahoma should exercise caution in taking on these new financial burdens, especially in light of what they have cost in other states.
Twenty years ago, Texas had a small group of charter schools with few students. Today, Texas has over 700 charter schools enrolling 300,000 students.
Oversight of charter schools in Texas has been unwieldy and difficult. Texas law gives funding to schools based on pupils enrolled. Once a charter gets the money, it can do what it wants. Typically, money is placed into a private account so it can be spent without public scrutiny. By law, charter schools are required to reveal very little about their operations to the state, parents or students.
Last year in Texas, Alsie and Annette Cluff (husband and wife) were guilty of embezzling millions of dollars in tax money, originally designated to be spent on poor students enrolled in their charter school in Houston. With taxpayer money, the Cluffs purchased, among other items, a posh 7,000-square-foot house, a private jet and a collection of expensive jewelry.
One of the attributes of charter schools heralded by their lobbyists has always been that they were “unregulated.” But lack of regulation has a downside.
For example, many parents might not know that teachers at charter schools need not be certified. Charter owner-operators can hire anyone they want, regardless of qualifications. Children First Academy, a small charter school in Dallas, hired a teacher who was a convicted felon. Another teacher at the school sexually assaulted sixth-grade boys during school hours and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Not only was Children First a dangerous school, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in Texas. Yet, the owner-operator paid himself $290,000 a year, $232,000 to his brother, and $172,000 to his wife — all taxpayer dollars. Starting pay for an administrator in Dallas public schools is around $60,000.
In Indiana, vouchers were sold to voters on the pretext that they would provide options to the poor whose children might attend underperforming schools. After the legislation passed, “school choice” advocates celebrated. Today, less than 1% of vouchers are used by poor families. Instead, vouchers go to children from wealthy families. More than half of vouchers are used by children who have never attended any public school, much less an underperforming one.
Historically, Oklahoma legislators have been careful with taxpayers’ money. Most voters will not respond favorably if their tax money goes to private jets, expensive vacations, jewelry and mansions for millionaires rather than for the education of children of the hardworking citizens of the state. States that have been lured into the financial abyss of unregulated charter schools and school vouchers have opened a Pandora’s Box. Once opened, it will be difficult, if not impossible to close.
Lawrence Baines is director of the Oklahoma Writing Project at the University of Oklahoma’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education. Jim Machell is a professor and former dean of the College of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma.