State Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) says he’s confident Oklahoma lawmakers will continue to introduce legislation for education savings accounts (ESAs) in the state legislature.
Oklahoma currently offers two limited school choice programs: Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarships, a tax credit scholarship program, and the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, a voucher program.
ESAs allow parents to direct to alternative education sources a portion of the public funds allocated to their child for public education. Options can include private school tuition, textbooks, and tutoring.
In February 2016, Nelson introduced House Bill 2949 to create ESAs for eligible students. The Oklahoma House Education Committee approved the bill for consideration by the full House. In March, House and Senate leaders announced neither chamber would vote on Nelson’s bill, nor on its companion legislation, Senate Bill 609.
“I have every reason to believe there will be multiple versions of Education Savings Accounts filed next session,” Nelson told Oklahoma’s News9 in August.
Nelson says there is high demand for school choice in Oklahoma.
“There’s enormous interest when you look at polling and waiting lists just to get into public schools,” Nelson said. “ESAs benefit both sides of the equation. They leave some of the money behind that [students] would have received in the regular public school to that school system. It’s more grassroots than anything right now. Just sharing that information with people [is key].”
A ‘Blessing’ to Parents
Brandon Dutcher, senior vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, says ESAs give parents even more options than other school choice programs, such as vouchers.
“What’s beautiful about the ESA is the flexibility,” Dutcher said. “Rather than having to spend the money at school, you’re free to customize for various educational services and therapies. What a blessing that would be to parents.”
Nelson says another advantage of ESAs is they allow parents to find the best value for their money.
“Parents get to save all the money they do not use every year,” Nelson said. “That could be saved for college, therapy, tutors, or other educational options in real time. It causes parents to really be able to shop around and find the best deal. There’s been some indication in some places that private schools will raise the cost [of tuition] to the voucher amount. This avoids that. This is the only thing I’ve seen that really does offer something for everyone.
“The narrative offered by opponents is a false one, that you’re siphoning money from the public school and you’re accomplishing the same goal with a little less money,” Nelson said.
Education Establishment ‘Obstacle’
Dutcher says special-interest groups are intent on preventing ESA legislation from passing in Oklahoma.
“The main obstacle, as always, is the education establishment,” Dutcher said. “They have a vested interest in protecting their monopoly position, so for them this is a hill to die on. They have the tax-funded lobbyists, the [public relations] machine, a largely sympathetic press corps, and the infrastructure necessary to make the most noise at the capitol and on social media. Combine that with their willingness to peddle long-discredited myths, and it’s tough to overcome. You can’t overcome it unless you have political leadership willing to say, basically, ‘We’re not going to sacrifice anymore kids. We’re not going home until we get this done.’ Unfortunately, we don’t have that right now.”
Public Awareness Challenge
Dutcher says another factor making ESA legislation difficult to pass is not enough people understand the program.
“The lack of public awareness is a challenge,” Dutcher said. “ESAs are a new concept. By contrast, most people know what a tax break is, for example, and many people can tell you what a school voucher is. The political fight on those is still always difficult, of course, but at least you start with people being able to define the terms. With ESAs, you have the difficult political fight plus the uncertainty of a new concept.”
ESAs ‘Gaining Momentum’
Nelson says the likelihood ESA legislation will eventually pass is improving.
“It’s got a better chance happening this coming session than last, and if it doesn’t pass this session, then it will have a better chance next year,” Nelson said. “It’s gaining momentum. Some of the potential success next session will depend somewhat on the elections in November.”
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.