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Saturday, May 27th, 2017Last Update: Thursday, May 4th, 2017 02:03:55 PM

Oklahomas Budget Hole Could Be $1 Billion Deeper

By: Brandon Dutcher

Oklahoma's budget crunch has been much in the news lately. But imagine how much worse the situation could be.

"Oklahoma has about 692,000 students in public schools," says Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. "According to the U.S. Census and data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 100,000 students are educated outside of the public school system."

Imagine if 100,000 new students showed up at their local public school tomorrow morning ("I'm here for my free education, please!"). If our elected officials wanted to keep per-pupil spending at its current level, they would have to come up with another billion dollars annually, based on numbers from the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System.

One of our policymakers' chief priorities is public education, i.e., making sure we have an educated public. Fortunately, it doesn't matter where that education takes place.

Some of it takes place in public schools, for which our political leaders are spending some $10,000 per student (according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education's own numbers).

Some of it takes place outside of the public school system -- in home schools, for example, or in accredited private schools, where the median tuition is $5,310, according to the Oklahoma Private School Accreditation Commission. Cash-squeezed appropriators should be grateful for these thousands of parents who are picking up the tab themselves.

Indeed, politicians should try to save even more money (and reduce school overcrowding) by redirecting some of those 692,000 students into the nonpublic sector.

Many parents would jump at the chance. In the last two years, three different scientific surveys have asked Oklahomans what type of school they would prefer for their children. Each time, many respondents (48 percent, 50 percent, and 30 percent) said they would choose a nonpublic alternative.

Policymakers should try to bridge the gap between actual enrollment and what parents want. A $5,000 voucher, tax credit, or education savings account, for example -- even if it didn't cover the full tuition amount -- would spur some of those 692,000 to choose alternatives outside of the public school system. (As for the 100,000 already outside the system? Sorry, I'm afraid in this budget climate that would be too tall an order.)

Redirecting some of those 692,000 students would have a positive fiscal impact on the public school system, but that's a subject for another day. What's important here is that it would have a positive fiscal impact on taxpayers and their elected leaders -- leaders who are trying each year to build roads and bridges, fund mental health programs, incarcerate criminals, increase teacher pay, and much more.

This positive impact on taxpayers -- now paying $5K instead of $10K, in my example above -- is obvious enough. We already see the principle at work with Oklahoma's higher education vouchers.

For example, the Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant -- which is nearly identical in structure to Oklahoma's private-school voucher program in common education (the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship) -- is a modest $2,000 grant for students enrolling in private colleges. Created with strong bipartisan support in 2003, the grant has saved taxpayers more than $50 million, according to Oklahoma Independent Colleges and Universities.

Dr. Greg Forster, author of a research synthesis of the school-choice literature, says that out of 28 empirical studies, 25 find that school choice saves money for taxpayers and three are neutral. No empirical study has ever found that school choice has a negative fiscal effect on taxpayers.

In sum, policymakers staring at Oklahoma's budget hole should (1) thank the parents of 100,000 students that the hole's not a lot deeper, and (2) try to entice some of the parents of 692,000 students to help fill that hole.

Brandon Dutcher is OCPA's Senior Vice President His award-winning articles have appeared in Investor's Business Daily, World magazine, Forbes.com, Mises.org, The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, and 200 newspapers throughout Oklahoma and the U.S. He can be contacted at: Brandon@ocpathink.org

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