Last month, the Oklahoma House of Representatives took a step in the right direction by passing legislation that enables families to choose the best educational option for their children. Rather than following the lead of states embracing bold education-freedom programs, however, Oklahoma state legislators chose a more cautious approach. The bill offers parents a relatively small tax-credit reimbursement for private school tuition or homeschooling expenses.
The Oklahoma House’s Parental Choice Tax Credit Act provides parents with an annual tax credit worth $5,000 for private school tuition or $2,500 for homeschooling expenses for each child. Reimbursable education tax credits and tax-credit scholarship programs often provide smaller funding amounts per pupil than other choice programs, like vouchers or education savings accounts. Fortunately, the average private elementary school tuition in Oklahoma totals approximately $6,600, much lower than the national average of $11,369, so the reimbursement will help many parents access educational options.
Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt is a strong advocate for school choice, and he made clear in his February State of the State address that he wants to sign a bill that funds students, not systems. “Providing more options for students leads to better outcomes,” Governor Stitt said. “Oklahoma cannot afford to be left behind.”
Ideally, the Oklahoma Senate will propose legislation that either increases the tax credit amount or provides families with education savings accounts (ESAs), which offer access to more education funding per pupil and more flexibility in the use of the funds. K-12 ESAs are accounts funded with the per-pupil funding allocated to the child (sometimes only a portion of the funding) that parents use to pay for eligible tuition, tutoring, curriculum, educational technology and therapies, and transportation expenses. State legislators should give Governor Stitt the same opportunity that governors across the country are getting—to sign into law bills creating robust and universal education freedom programs.
Earlier this year, Iowa and Utah passed laws year creating K-12 education savings account programs, and Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a sweeping education bill this week that includes a new ESA program. More states plan to follow their lead. Last year, Arizona established the gold standard for education freedom by expanding eligibility for the state’s empowerment scholarship account program to cover all 1.1 million Arizona students.
While education savings account programs have been in existence for over a decade, with programs first launched in Arizona and Florida, they were initially limited by eligibility criteria that allowed only students with disabilities to participate. As the programs grew, students with special needs, who often had struggled in government-assigned schools, were thriving. Parents breathed a sigh of relief that they no longer had to fight their local school district for every accommodation, service, and therapy that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) supposedly guaranteed their child. State legislators realized that ESAs were a successful education-freedom model and began expanding eligibility and creating new programs.
A dozen states now have ESA programs, with more to come this year. Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ssweeping LEARNS Act includes a new Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Accounts program. The program phases in over three years, giving eligible families access to the accounts for private school tuition and fees in the first year and expanding eligibility to additional educational expenses the next year. Starting in the 2024-25 school year, parents also can use the accounts for tutoring, curriculum, educational technology, and transportation expenses. By 2025-26, all students eligible to enroll in Arkansas public K-12 schools can participate.
The Arkansas accounts will be funded with 90% of the per-pupil funding the state provides for education. This year, the state provides approximately $7,400 per pupil in foundation education funding. Rather than limiting the program in funding or eligibility, Arkansas is taking bold steps to empower families and ensure that funding follows students.
Governor Sanders has established audacious goals for education in her state. She is refusing to accept the status quo, even if the teachers’ unions and K-12 bureaucrats protest anything that might affect their control over the state’s failing education system. She’s setting a powerful example for other governors to follow.
We no longer need to set the bar low for what is possible with education-freedom legislation. State legislatures and governors will surely face the ire of teachers’ unions and the K-12 education cartel, but they should stand strong and pursue the creation of universally eligible education savings accounts programs. The new Oklahoma tax credit is a step forward, but now is a time to leap boldly ahead so that every child has the chance to succeed.