Oklahoma Education Savings Accounts nixed, for now

OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma measure that would mirror existing Education Savings Accounts in Arizona was rejected in a state House panel, but the lead sponsor — author of other notable school choice measures — will fight on.

State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, told CapitolBeatOK that “defeat of the bill in committee only serves to strengthen the resolve to help these kids. ESAs are the most common sense way to do it. ESAs are a win-win children and parents.”
Under Nelson’s measure, House Bill 3398, students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines could receive up to 90 percent of funding that would have supported their education in a public school. For those with family income up to 150 percent of the reduced lunch formula could receive 60 percent of the resources.

Parents in the ESA program would receive debit cards, the use of which would be limited to a state-approved list of institutions or vendors.

However, members of the House Education Committee, which rejected H.B. 3398 last week, said they received hundreds of phone calls in opposition to the measure, and intense lobbying by state education groups, both unions and associations of administrators.

The push against the bill was aimed directly at wavering legislators, and included lobbying by members of the Oklahoma Education Association, the NEA-union affiliate, and the state Parents Teachers Association.

Education groups are demanding state spending increases for public schools beyond the $50 million Gov. Mary Fallin recommended in her budget. Leaders of those groups assert that school choice programs, including the proposed ESAs, would reduce public school funding.

Nelson explained that because of the partial funding that would follow children in his measure, money remains behind in regular public classrooms, increasing per pupil revenue. He said, “We will continue to educate our House members, and dispel myths thrown out at last minute by the opponents.”

Nelson predicted that winning the fight for ESAs will take more time: “There is a lot of misinformation about the bill — in some cases not because people don’t misunderstand, but because of the politics of it. Most parents are satisfied with public schools, but for those who are not this is a healthy option.”

The new Speaker of the House, Jeff Hickman, R-Nacoma, supported Nelson’s bill and has backed choice measures in the past. Nonetheless, several Republicans on the Education panel joined all the Democrats to vote against the measure, with rural legislators notable among the opponents.

Pressed to say if he thought the reform was dead for this legislative year, Rep. Nelson said, “It might be. Most of our House members are beginning to understand the issue, but they have questions and need information to respond to local school administrators.”

Mississippi legislators recently advanced a form of ESA aimed at benefitting special needs children. If the measure is enacted, the state will become the second ESA to take effect in the U.S.

Oklahoma enacted the Henry Nicole Henry Special Needs Scholarship program in 2010 with bipartisan support; an opportunity scholarship program financed through tax credits passed in 2011. The special needs program is facing a legal challenge, pending before the state Supreme Court.

You may contact Pat at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com .