Oklahoma City – “One-hundred percent supportive of education savings accounts.” That is how Governor Mary Fallin described herself in her State of the State speech earlier this month, before encouraging the Legislature to send her a bill to “give students and parents a better chance for educational success.”
It was a bold request from Fallin, and one that has breathed new life into an education debate that had previously focused only on government spending. With a budget shortfall of over $1 billion headed into the 2016 legislative session, it is clear lawmakers will have a difficult time offering a large increase – or any increase – in public education funding. Fallin, however, may have offered the Legislature a different and more innovative path.
Education savings accounts (ESAs), redirect a portion of the per-pupil expenses a child receives for public education into a government-authorized account controlled by parents. A parent can then use that account to support tuition and education expenses.
For example, an ESA account could be used to support tuition at a private school, a faith-based school or a virtual school. They would also allow a parent to keep their child at their current public school or to pick a different public school and transfer the ESA resources to that new location. Money not used for common education expenses could be rolled into college savings accounts.
Because ESAs redirect the way public education money is spent, they do not necessarily have any fiscal impact or require any new government spending.
“ESA’s are incredibly empowering for parents,” said Renee Porter, founder of ChoiceMatters for Kids, an organization advocating for School Choice and ESA’s. “If your child has special needs and you’re in a school district that can’t address those needs, adopting ESA’s mean you are no longer trapped.”
State Senator Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, has filed Senate Bill 609 – to would give every parent in Oklahoma -- barring those whose children are already in private schools or faith-based schools -- an ESA of several thousand dollars. (The exact number is based on the state’s complicated per pupil funding formula and thus is still in question). State Representative Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, has filed a House Bill (HB 2949) that offers a somewhat pared down vision, offering ESAs to parents of low-income children and children with special needs.
Porter says either bill would be a huge step forward for education in Oklahoma and is also a political winner with Oklahoman's across the ideological spectrum. Polls cited by ChoiceMatters for Kids show 70 percent of Oklahoman's support School Choice programs, including 80 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats.
“At the end of the day, you’re asking parents two questions,” said Porter. “Would your child benefit from several thousand dollars in a flexible education account? And, do you think that you should be able to send your child to any school you choose? I don’t care what your political affiliation is. Most parents are going to say, ‘sign me up.’”