February 16 2015
Vicki E. Alger
Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking to the High Noon Club in Oklahoma City about education savings accounts (ESAs), the latest innovation in parental choice. ESA programs were first introduced in Arizona in 2011 and in Florida in 2014.
ESAs let parents withdraw their children from public school and receive 90 percent of the state funding that would have been spent to educate them in designated savings accounts. Parents can then use those funds to pay for authorized education expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring, test preparation, and online courses. Any leftover funds remain in a child’s designated ESA and can be used to pay for future education expenses, such as college.
Since 2011 Arizona has expanded its program to include students in or assigned to failing public schools, students from the foster care system, as well as children of Active Duty members of the military stationed within the state.
Oklahoma could be the next state to enact such a program. Under proposed legislation Oklahoma students with special needs, from low-income families, or whose parents serve in the military would be eligible. Teachers unions oppose the measure, but legal challenges by unions and other opponents in Arizona and Florida have all been defeated (see here, here, and here).
The Oklahoma Education Savings Account Act would expand upon Oklahoma’s successful tax-credit scholarship programs for students with special needs, from low-income families, or who would otherwise have to attend failing public schools.
Early research on Arizona’s ESA program has also found that parents are using funds to pay for tuition at a variety of private schools, and more than one-third of parents (34 percent) use their children’s ESAs to customize learning options, including paying for private tutoring, therapy, specialized materials, and online courses.
The ability to choose not simply where but how their children are educated also results in high parental satisfaction with ESAs. Fully 100 percent of participating Arizona parents reported being satisfied with the program, with 71 percent reporting they are “very satisfied.”
A recent poll commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs found that more than two-thirds of Oklahoma voters under the age of 45 favored ESAS, and nearly 56 percent of all likely voters in the state support them.
It is important to note that nearly 70 percent of voters believe ESAs should be available to all families. Personalizing learning for all students is the best policy path of all since every child’s learning needs are unique.