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February 27, 2014

Q&A with Jason Nelson

OKLA. CITY — Four years ago, state Rep. Jason Nelson challenged the status quo in education by authoring the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act. The measure allowed parents of special-needs students to use state dollars to pay private school tuition and other educational expenses. About 280 students are now participating.

This year, Nelson is aiming higher. He’s pushing legislation that would allow lower-income and middle-income families to take a portion of the approximately $4,900 in state and local per-pupil spending and put it in education savings accounts to spend outside the public school system.

Under Nelson’s bill, a family of four earning up to about $44,000 would receive 90 percent of the per-pupil allocation to use on private educational services. The state contribution would fall to 60 percent for families earning up to $66,000 and 30 percent for families earning up to $88,000.

In an interview with Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth, Nelson describes his ESA plan and responds to criticism by educators that it would erode the quality of public schools. He also talks about two other hot-button education bills he is sponsoring: a “parent trigger” law that would let people petition for removal of school administrators, and a one-year delay in implementing Common Core education standards. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: In a nutshell, how would education savings accounts work?

A: The money would be placed into an account that the state treasurer would manage. It would come with a debit card. They could use the debit card at a private school or to purchase virtual online education services. They could buy curriculum, educational therapies and services, tutoring. They could even purchase educational services from a public school, charter school, or any combination of those things.

If they have money left over, they can roll it over and save it for college or some post-secondary educational purpose. If they’re four years out of high school and they didn’t use the money, then it reverts back to the state.

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