Research & Commentary: Oklahoma Education Savings Accounts

Published March 10, 2016

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in February the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities does not violate the state constitution. The decision has cleared the way for expanding education savings accounts (ESAs) for all students across the state. A universal ESA bill passed the House Common Education Committee on February 15.

Enacted in 2010, the LNH Scholarship Program allows students with special needs the opportunity to receive a voucher to attend a private school. These schools must be accredited by the Oklahoma State Board of Education or an approved accrediting association; they must comply with state health and safety and nondiscrimination requirements; and the schools must have been in operation for at least one full school year prior to acceptance into the program. At the end of the 2014–15 school year, the LNH program had 377 participants, a 223 percent increase from 2012–13. These students attended 51 approved schools and were awarded an average of $6,632 per student.

Just 16 percent of Oklahoma students were eligible for the LNH Program in 2014–15, but the House bill would expand ESAs to all Oklahoma students. Those children who belong to households with an annual income level below 200 percent of the amount needed to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program would receive at least 60 percent of the state’s current level of per-pupil funding. Children in households with an annual income at or below the amount needed to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches would receive 90 percent of the state’s current level of per-pupil funding. Children in households with an annual income above 200 percent of the amount needed to qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches would receive 30 percent of the state’s current level of per-pupil funding.

Only 37 percent of Oklahoma 4th graders and 23 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Only 33 percent of 4th graders and 29 percent of 8th graders tested proficient in reading. These results show Oklahoma’s public school system is failing to educate roughly seven and a half out of 10 4th grade students and roughly eight and a half out of 10 8th grade students to a proficient level in reading and mathematics.

Oklahoma’s sub-standard performance on NAEP underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Too many public schools in Oklahoma are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives. Parents should be allowed to choose the schools their children attend and should not be penalized financially if that choice is a private religious or secular school.

“ESAs are about empowering parents and improving the range of educational options for children,” Renee Porter, executive director of Choice Matters, told The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News. “All children are different and learn differently. Some children have disabilities that require special attention. Other children are so advanced that their time in the classroom isn’t really benefitting them. It’s unrealistic, and quite frankly unfair, to expect every public school to provide for the exact needs of every student. That’s why it’s important to give parents options like charter schools, private schools, and virtual schools.”

Not only are education choice options good policy, they are also broadly popular. Polling conducted by the American Federation for Children in November 2015 shows 70 percent of respondents were in favor of school choice, including 79 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats. Further, 75 percent thought the LNH Program should be expanded, 67 percent believe competition can help improve public schools, and 54 percent are in favor of ESAs. More recently, SoonerPoll released the results of a survey on March 9 showing 56.3 percent of Oklahoma likely voters support ESAs, including 45 percent of Democrats.

The passage of a universal ESA bill would go a long way toward remedying Oklahoma’s dismal record of failing to educate its children. The goal should be to allow every parent to choose, require every school to compete, and give every child an opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information on school choice and education reform.

Ten Principles of School Choice
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 school vouchers are constitutional, grassroots activists around the country have been organizing to support the creation of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. At least 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders with a highly condensed and easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain and precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Internet, and a directory of the websites of national organizations that support school choice.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. These programs raise other important legal questions, which fall into four categories: the scope of students’ rights to an education and parents’ rights to choose their children’s schools; state constitutional obstacles to private school choice; the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students; and the religious liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but AEI also says these questions create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale up existing programs and expand program options.

The Productivity of Charter Schools
In this study produced by the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, the successes and failures of charter schools are examined. The study’s findings show charter schools are, on average, much more productive than traditional public schools in the same district. The authors conclude, “What we can say, based on our limited exploratory analysis of the [return on investment] for charter and [traditional public schools] sectors, is that the results suggest that the charter sectors in our sample jurisdictions are operating in a more productive manner than the [traditional public schools] sector at the funding and student achievement levels that currently exist.” 

The ABCs of School Choice – 2016 Edition
Published by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, The ABCs of School Choice is a comprehensive, data-rich guide to every private school choice program in the United States. This publication, which is updated annually, may not reflect developments past January 25, 2016.

Taking Credit for Education: How to Fund Education Savings Accounts through Tax Credits
This Cato Institute paper shows how legislators can design an education savings account (ESA) that is privately funded through tax-credit-eligible contributions from taxpayers, similar to tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in states across the country. Tax-credit-funded ESAs would empower families with more educational options while enhancing accountability and refraining from coercing anyone to financially support ideas they oppose. Because they are funded through voluntary contributions, rather than public funds, tax-credit scholarships have been found by the U.S. Supreme Court and by every state supreme court that has considered the issue to be within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions. In states that have Blaine amendments, which greatly restrict the ability of lawmakers to create some school choice programs, tax-credit ESAs could be a lifeline to families in need.

Issues 2016: Charter Schools Are Better at Retaining Hard-to-Educate Students
This Issue Brief, authored by Marcus A. Winters of the Manhattan Institute, explains how students with disabilities are more likely to remain in charter schools than traditional public schools. The study also found students learning English and students with low test scores are more likely to remain in charter schools than traditional public schools.

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
This paper from the Cato Institute examines the success achieved by school choice programs across the globe. The authors find the efficiency rate (student achievement per dollar spent on education) of private education options was higher compared to the public education efficiency rate in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in public schools.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts 
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers 
Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice collected the results of all available empirical studies that use the best available scientific methods to measure how school choice vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants and all available studies on how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Contrary to the widespread claim vouchers do not benefit participants and that they hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and those who remain in public schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the Washington, DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

Fear and Privatization
Bruce S. Cooper of Fordham University and E. Vance Randall of Brigham Young University examine public attitudes toward school choice models and find much anxiety among both private and public school advocates. The authors make many common mistakes and assumptions about school choice, but they come to an interesting conclusion: School choice advocates are successfully blurring the lines between the public and private school models by instituting a wide range of different choice plans.

Study Finds School Vouchers Boost College Enrollment for African Americans by 24%
In an experimental study examining the long-term outcomes of school voucher programs, Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson found the percentage of African-American students who enrolled part-time or full-time in college by 2011 was 24 percent higher for those who had won a school voucher lottery while in elementary school and used the voucher to attend a private school.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the website of School Reform News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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