The Oklahoma Education Savings Account Act, coauthored by state Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) and state Sen. Clark Jolley (R-Edmond), which would have created an education savings account (ESA) program for the state, has again failed to pass through the state’s legislature.
Companion bills were introduced in both legislative chambers in January. Nelson introduced similar legislation in 2014, but the bill never made it out of committee.
ESAs are widely hailed by school choice advocates for empowering parents to personalize learning to unprecedented degrees by putting them in charge of their children’s education funding.
The Oklahoma Legislature has failed to pass proposed education savings account programs for the past two years.
More Options for Parents
Oklahoma currently has a voucher and a tax-credit scholarship program, which together help roughly 1,100 students.
Under the proposed ESA legislation, public school students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students from military families would have been eligible for ESAs. Up to 90 percent of per-pupil state funding would be deposited into students’ accounts based on family income under the legislation, and parents could pay for a variety of education expenses, including private or virtual school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, and testing fees. Unused funds would roll over to pay for future education expenses, including college tuition.
“There are parents all over the state who are just as desperate for their child to have a future, but their limit is the school where they live or the opportunities within that school,” Nelson told The Oklahoman.
Public School Officials Opposed
A major focus of the 2015 legislative session was balancing a $611 million budget shortfall. School choice opponents claim ESAs would take money from public schools.
Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard insisted ESAs would have “a disastrous effect on public schools,” draining $1 million once the first 500 students left.
“The problem is, if you take money away from the public school, even if you take one child out, you still have to pay the teacher, the electric bills, buses,” Oklahoma Education Association President Linda Hampton told The Oklahoman.
“Not so,” Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Senior Vice President Brandon Dutcher told School Reform News.
Dutcher cited an analysis by Vance H. Fried of Oklahoma State University showing ESAs would yield a $1,000 to $3,000 per-pupil savings even if 100 percent of the associated state aid were deposited into students’ education accounts, because school districts would retain various non-instructional funding, such as employee health and pension benefits and transportation.
“If policymakers are going to spend $9,547 per student, they should fund the students, not the system,” said Dutcher.
Better Prospects in 2016?
The 2014 general election strengthened the Republican supermajority in the Oklahoma’s legislature, with the GOP picking up three more seats in the Senate.
The Senate ESA bill passed in two committees, but according to published reports, too many Republicans were worried about moving it to the Senate floor. The House bill fared even worse, being voted down in its first education committee, with Republicans casting five of the nine opposing votes.
A recent Sooner Poll survey commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs found 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. The survey also found 58 percent of voters believe ESAs should be available to all students, not only those with special needs.
“[T]here has been much misinformation about what the bill would or would not do, raising questions and concerns for some legislators and their constituents,” said Sen. Jolley in a March press release.
Jolley says he plans to hold the bill until 2016 so he can help educate lawmakers about ESAs.
Vicki Alger, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, with a forthcoming book on the history of the U.S. Department of Education. She is also a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.