OKLA. CITY —
Oklahoma’s public schools serve many children very well. Still, for various reasons, some students’ needs are better met in private schools, in virtual schools or elsewhere. That is why two state lawmakers have introduced legislation to give parents debit cards, literally, to shop for the educational services that work best for their children.
Education savings accounts, or ESAs, enable parents to receive a portion of their children’s public education funding through a use-restricted debit card, which parents can use to pay for therapists or tutors, private-school tuition or a combination of services. They even can save unused funds for their children’s college expenses.
ESAs were implemented in Arizona in 2011, and have been a tremendous success for participating families. Take Amanda, and her son, Nathan. Using an ESA, Nathan attends Lauren’s Institute for Education, a private school that specializes in helping students with autism. Before the ESA, Nathan could not speak and needed regular one-on-one attention. Today, he is speaking in full sentences and enjoying science and social studies.
That is just one story from the 730 students in Arizona’s ESA program, which has more than doubled in enrollment each year since its launch. And, notably, participants are “doubling down” on their learning options.
Analyzing Arizona Department of Education data, the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke found that 34.5 percent of Arizona’s first-year ESA parents purchased multiple educational options for their children. For example, a family might have paid for private school tuition and therapeutic tools. Or, they bought online courses and tutoring lessons.
ESAs allow parents to tailor their children’s schooling experiences like never before. And because parents can roll-over unused funds, ESAs provide a powerful incentive for participants to shop economically. According to Burke, first-year enrollees saved 43 percent of their ESA funds for future educational expenses. Now that’s an efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
Those successes are why Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole, are working to bring ESAs to Oklahoma. And it appears lawmakers’ constituents are supportive.
In a recent survey released by our two organizations, 56 percent of Oklahoma voters support ESAs. Only 34 percent oppose them. Support was strongest among Republican voters (65 percent), but majorities of both Democrats (50 percent) and Independents (54 percent) identified ESAs favorably.
Encouragingly, most respondents (58 percent) thought ESAs should be available “universally” to all families. That may sound dramatic, but, remember, just because all families would be eligible doesn’t mean all families would participate. ESAs are just an option. The point is to empower every Oklahoma parent with the choices that provide every child an opportunity — regardless of socioeconomic status or geography. And that’s the goal of ESAs: Wherever Oklahomans may get their education, ensure it is a high-quality one that meets students’ needs. Shopping grows our economy. It can do the same in education.
MICHAEL CARNUCCIO is the president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Robert Enlow is the president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.