Oklahoma Republican Leaders: Education Savings Accounts will not be considered this year

OKLAHOMA CITY – Thursday (March 11), top Republican leaders at the state Capitol pulled from consideration two proposals designed to create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) empowering parents with new mechanisms allowing them to choose where their children can go to school.

Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, and Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, announced in a joint press release that “neither the House nor Senate will be voting on separate measures … that would create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).”

The joint release from Hickman and Bingman said the pair were “resolved to continue working on the critical issue of providing Oklahoma children with needed educational opportunities until a resolution can be agreed upon by legislators of both chambers.”

In prepared comments, Hickman said, The focus of this effort has been, first and foremost, to find solutions for the children who desperately need better opportunities and to know someone cares. The desire to improve student outcomes and empower parents without harming our public schools will be the goal we continue to work toward in the future.”

House Bill 2949 and Senate Bill 609 were spiked in the same week an agreement was announced to pull $79 million from the Constitutional Reserve (the Rainy Day Fund) to finance public education and the Corrections Department.

The Rainy Day raid will help sustain the status quo in governance of tax-supported schools in the Sooner State.

Despite a cumulative 7 percent drop in anticipated tax revenues in the current fiscal year, the Legislature and Gov. Fallin decided to sustain public education governance in its present form, with several times the number of school districts as states with similar populations.

Public education (common schools, higher education and CareerTech) garners more than 50 percent of all revenues subject to legislative appropriation in Oklahoma. The lion’s share of that goes to PK-12 education.

In the face of fierce opposition from Democrats and educators working in tax-financed PK-12 systems, both the House and Senate previously declined to act on proposals to press for administrative efficiency for the more than 500 public school districts in Oklahoma.

Proposals to blend dependent low performing dependent school districts (K-8) into nearby districts – without school closures – were aimed at redirecting some resources now going to administrative salaries for direct classroom instruction.

Despite inaction on administrative efficiency, both H.B. 2949 and S.B. 609 (the ESA bills creating broader school choice) had cleared legislative committees this spring. Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, a Republican, said recently she did not think this was the right year for consideration of ESAs.

The bills that had passed legislative committees were House Bill 2949 and Senate Bill 609.

Pro Temp Bingman praised efforts by Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, in the upper chamber: “He’s worked tirelessly on this issue for years and deserves credit for his efforts regardless of where you stand on the issue. This conversation is an important one that shouldn’t be forced by legislative deadlines. 

It’s my hope that further work and conversation on this issue would result in a compromise solution.”

Sen. Bingman has advanced public school administrative reforms in recent years, but was unable to gain Senate committee approval of his idea this session.

In Thursday’s joint release, the pair of Republican leaders said “both chambers will engage members to continue working on the issue, building consensus and developing proposals to help these children.”

Governor Mary Fallin, also a Republican, had said in her State of the State address kicking off the 2016 legislative session she was “100 percent” in favor of ESAs.

In that speech, Fallin also called for administrative efficiencies in education, specifically noting that former Gov. David Walters, a Democrat, had made a similar plea more than three decades ago.

Thursday, in a statement included in the legislative press release, Fallin said, “I appreciate legislative leaders for continuing the conversation on Education Savings Accounts. It’s important to give low-income parents the ability to determine the best educational opportunities for their children.

“All students learn differently and should have the opportunity to attend a school that offers the best learning environment for each student to be successful. I look forward to working with the House and Senate to develop effective legislation on ESAs.”

Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, was lead sponsor for H.B. 2949 and has long championed education choice, particularly better options for students in low-performing public schools.

In his separate statement, Nelson commented, While I am deeply disappointed that ESA legislation in the House and Senate will not be voted on by the deadline today, I want parents to know I, and many others, will continue to fight for their rights and improved educational opportunities for their children.

“Unfortunately, the misinformation campaign from the educational establishment continues. ESAs would give more options to more parents and their children AND it would increase per pupil funding for students in our public schools helping teachers in the classroom.

To improve our schools, we have to face the reality that our public schools cannot be everything to everyone. In today’s world, different students have different needs. We are no longer the society of one-room schools or a homogenous society that only educated the elite. Our teachers are pushed to the max. Their hands are tied when it comes to discipline. To force upon them children who could be better served elsewhere is unconscionable.

“While others think maintaining the status quo is to be preferred, I strongly disagree and will continue to fight because each child deserves a shot at a good education regardless of geography and family income.”

State Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, said in a Facebook post that spiking the ESA measures was “a disgusting development. The educational establishment and the Oklahoma Education Association win again. Jason Nelson’s bill was one of the best bills of this session.

“And it would have help parents obtain the best educational choices possible. I’m very discouraged. And, [this is] another reason, among several, why I’m reluctant to appropriate additional ’emergency’ money for Common Education in this current year. The educational establishment has never [been], nor will they ever be, satisfied with the amount we appropriate to them.”

Referencing Gov. Fallin’s call for administrative efficiency in the government-run school districts, Wesselhoft continued, “We also have too many superintendents of small school districts who are making high six figure salaries plus benefits. We have as much or more staff members than teachers in the classroom. There is too much waste in Common Education.”

Prof. Ben Scafidi, an economist at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University who has studied public school finances, personnel policies and governance nationwide, recently presented an analysis documenting

a substantial increase in the number of non-teaching personnel working in the Sooner State’s public schools.

According to data drawn from the National Center for Education Statistics, from 1992-2013, the number of students in Oklahoma public schools increased 14 percent, but the number of lead teachers increased by a smaller 11 percent. In contast, the number of non-teaching staff in state schools jumped by 33 percent.

The center is an arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Prof. Scafidi, with an economic “opportunity cost” analysis and other means of analysis, pointed out that money could have financed a number of worthy policy goals, including lower student-teacher ratios, ESA-style scholarships, reduced taxation or some mix of those objectives. If the taxpayer resources had been adjusted so that the number of non-teaching personnel in the schools were equivalent to the comparatively smaller teacher pool, policymakers could have financed a public teacher pay raise totaling $7,000.

In recent literature, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) characterized the pattern Prof. Scafidi documented as, “The $7,000 teacher pay raise that wasn’t.”

OCPA President Jonathan Small, in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, said Thursday,

“Children all across Oklahoma, especially the most vulnerable, lost out again today. It is disappointing that neither of the two bills that would have provided a lifeline for these children, and for their families, in the form of education savings accounts, were voted on by the full state House or state Senate before today’s deadline.

“ESAs would provide Oklahoma families, especially low-income families, with opportunities they simply don’t currently have to choose better educational options for their children.

“These two bills were not heard today because the strongest lobby at the state Capitol is now the public education lobby. Too often, this group has emphasized the dollar value associated with keeping children in seats in public schools, rather than allowing parents to have greater options for meeting their children’s unique needs.”