Oklahoma lawmakers have proposed legislation which would create education savings accounts for students in low-income families, with special needs, or in military families.
A Friedman Foundation study released in January found that 56 percent of Oklahomans favor ESA’s.
Under House Bill 3398, parents who remove their children from the public school system could receive up to 90 percent of the state funds dedicated to the child’s public education. Funds could be put towards a variety of education services such as private school tuition, charter school tuition, special education assistance, homeschooling, tutoring, counseling, online education, or a combination of these and more. If money is left over after the school year, parents could either roll the funds over to the next school year or save them for their child’s future higher education.
The accounts are “potentially game-changing, a new concept,” said Brandon Dutcher, senior vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). They present “another option on the menu for parents” for providing the best education possible.
Arizona’s ESA Legislation
Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City), one of the bill’s original sponsors, drew upon Arizona’s successful education savings account (ESA) program while drafting legislation.
Calling ESAs a “perfect fit” for Oklahoma, Nelson explained they “would provide a number of options for those parents to find some kind of an education set-up that works for, and fits their child.”
In 2011, Arizona became the first and, so far, only state to offer ESAs. Originally available only for students with special needs, the program has since expanded to include low-income students in failing schools, students in military families, and children in the foster care system.
“Children should go wherever they need to go. Public schools don’t work for every child,” Nelson said.
Majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents supported ESAs in the Friedman/OCPA poll of 606 representative Oklahoma voters. Of the 164 parents surveyed who have school-age children. 63 percent favored ESAs.
“Oklahomans have choices in everything from cell phone providers to grocery stores,” Dutcher said. “It’s no surprise that they want choices in something as important as the education of their children.”
Recent Choice Expansion
In recent years, Oklahoma has introduced new programs to expand options for students. In 2010, the state began to provide vouchers to special-needs children. In 2011, a similar scholarship program was developed for low-income students, through tax credits for those who contribute. The poll found 63 percent of voters favor these tax-credit scholarships. Oklahoma also has two online charter schools.
ESAs differ in empowering families to utilize a wide variety of educational options, customizing an education plan for each student.
The public education sector will likely be the most vocal opponent of the plan, as some in it worry about money moving from public schools, those interviewed for this article said. Others may assert the plan lacks accountability.
To ensure ESA recipients are receiving quality education, the legislation requires recipients to take a nationally norm-referenced test each year and include their scores on their yearly renewal contract.
“We’ve got to show how these students are doing in the program, while at the same time not intruding on private schools and the delivery or mechanisms they are using,” explained Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute. Goldwater helped pass the first ESA law.
The Oklahoma legislature convenes on February 3. Republicans hold a supermajority in both state chambers and the governor’s seat.
But “it is still too early to tell” how much support he will receive from his party and the amount of pushback the legislation will face from the public school sector and others, Nelson said. Passing the state’s special-needs vouchers hinged on a few votes from across the aisle, he noted, saying he hopes the vote to approve more choice would be bipartisan once again.
“Oklahoma K-12 and School Choice Survey,” Friedman Foundation and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, January 2014: http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/Oklahoma-K-12-and-School-Choice-Survey.aspx.
image by Tulane Public Relations.