School vouchers are a program where schools are forced to compete for students. Before I talk about that, I want to enlighten you on frustrations I personally have with Oklahoma education — the ridiculous amounts of money which go to programs that neither benefit all students nor have a statistically meaningful impact on most of their lives and future success (sports) and you have to ask questions about why the Science program is underfunded. You’d think after all the arguments I’ve made, they would have been gone ages ago. But it is ingrained in the culture. People have their greatest memories on the field, so they expect the schools to participate, and if they participate, they better win. So coaches have far more power to demand what they “need” then the merits of the program deserve. Seriously think about the cost of a football stadium being built and maintained each year, along with a gymnasium, a softball, and a baseball field, when only about three hundred kids use these facilities out of a school of only around 1,000 kids. That’s K-12, not just our High School. Now consider that there are only about 60 kids on the team.
Also consider that that this brings about the necessary evil of Creatures. That’s my euphemism for Coach/Teachers. Some are the best teachers in the world are coaches, but far more are attempting to fulfill their failed aspirations of sports stardom by becoming a History teacher… which is why so many kids suck at History. Did I mention you get a not insignificant pay raise to be a Creature? I really want to stress that some of the Coach-Teachers are the best teachers I have ever known, but most simply suck as educators.
Look, just to make the point even clearer, I’m going to source The Atlantic, which is something I never thought I would do. But they have a piece that hits extremely close to home on this one.
Last year in Texas, whose small towns are the spiritual home of high-school football and the inspiration for Friday Night Lights, the superintendent brought in to rescue one tiny rural school district did something insanely rational. In the spring of 2012, after the state threatened to shut down Premont Independent School District for financial mismanagement and academic failure, Ernest Singleton suspended all sports—including football.
To cut costs, the district had already laid off eight employees and closed the middle-school campus, moving its classes to the high-school building; the elementary school hadn’t employed an art or a music teacher in years; and the high school had sealed off the science labs, which were infested with mold. Yet the high school still turned out football, basketball, volleyball, track, tennis, cheerleading, and baseball teams each year.
Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.
“I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms,” says Singleton, who has spent 15 years as a principal and helped turn around other struggling schools. “This was the worst I’ve seen in my career. The kids were in control. The language was filthy. The teachers were not prepared.” By suspending sports, Singleton realized, he could save $150,000 in one year. A third of this amount was being paid to teachers as coaching stipends, on top of the smaller costs: $27,000 for athletic supplies, $15,000 for insurance, $13,000 for referees, $12,000 for bus drivers. “There are so many things people don’t think about when they think of sports,” Singleton told me. Still, he steeled himself for the town’s reaction. “I knew the minute I announced it, it was going to be like the world had caved in on us.”
The Case Against High-School Sports
Look, I like school sports as a concept. I played all the way, and it may have even helped me personally. Of course, a lot more of that I credit with the Marines Corps, where many of my boot camp buddies never took a step on the grass. That aside, Oklahoma, and many other parts of the nation, have simply taken it too far. Spending for it has gone beyond any possible investment value, and now exists in a cannibalistic relationship with the Math, English, History, and woe unto thine humble arts program.
That’s why I advocate for vouchers. I want this to sink in, I am a former public school teacher married to a current public school teacher, arguing for vouchers. Listen to what I have to say.
Vouchers allow for the creation of charter schools in areas that are too poor to afford the high tuition of private schools. Vouchers break down the total budget of a district to the student, saying very coldly that if there are 1000 students in a district, each child is worth 0.1% of the budget. If the school’s budget is $3,000,000, then the child rates $3,000 of those dollars as funds that the locality and state are willing to put toward their education. With a voucher, a parent can transfer their student and take those dollars as the tuition for the charter school. This removes the funds from the public school, which is where competition comes into play. If numerous charters are allowed to open, it will mean that the public school will have a funding crisis, as they will have the exact same costs for their facilities, but lose too many students as a share of the total population to keep them funded.
Frankly, I’m okay with that.
I feel that this real crisis will force public schools, as well as charters, to evolve away from many of the practices that fail to make kids successful later in life. It will allow the charter schools to exist in an environment where new methods can be created free from the burdens of an impossible to manage state bureaucracy, and allow them to invest their funds more in line with the parents wishes where if they don’t want to fund a sports program eating up 40% of their kids’ tax dollars… they don’t have to. One positive outcome? Maybe the sports can stay. Forcing competition doesn’t mean that you close everything down to a husk. It means that you cut the fat and leave what works. If there are programs that encourage individual and team competition that actually translates to the success of the community, awesome. My town has won state championships in Cross Country three years in a row. All you need for that are running shoes. Sounds fair. But the cuts need to be made to bad programs for the schools to get back to actually educating children. Frankly, a lot of these small towns get in their own way by saving programs that don’t help their kids do better later in life. I feel that vouchers will help make that decision for them.
This is part of a series on Education in Oklahoma:
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