Vicki Alger | September 17, 2015
ESAs Could Be a Game-Changer for Oklahoma Parents
This back-to-school season marks the fifth year Arizona parents have exercised the freedom to decide not just where but how their children are educated thanks to the state’s groundbreaking education savings account (ESA) program.
Florida became the second state to enact ESAs, in 2014, followed by Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada earlier this year.
Oklahoma is conspicuously absent from this list because the state legislature failed to act.
ESAs are the latest advance in educational choice, fostering an unprecedented level of personalized learning opportunities for students customized by those who know and love them best: their parents.
The ESA concept is simple. Parents who do not prefer a public school for their child simply withdraw him or her, and the state deposits funds it would have sent to the school into that child’s ESA instead. Parents receive a type of dedicated-use debit card for authorized expenses including private school tuition, online courses, testing fees, tutoring, special education therapies, and more. Any leftover funds remain in the child’s ESA for future education expenses, including college.
ESA funds are disbursed quarterly, but only after parents submit expense reports with receipts for verification. Regular audits also help prevent misspending. If parents misuse funds they forfeit their child’s ESA and must repay misused funds or face legal prosecution.
So far ESAs have helped nearly 3,000 Arizona and Florida special-needs students. Since 2011, Arizona has expanded program eligibility to students in failing public schools, children from the foster care system, children of active-duty military parents, including those whose parents were killed in the line of duty, and children who reside on Indian reservations. Florida also expanded its program this year by making more students with disabilities eligible and tripling funding to $54 million.
Newly enacted programs in Tennessee and Nevada are even more expansive because they fully fund special-needs students’ ESAs rather than withholding 10 percent as Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi do.
Nevada’s ESA is far and away the most expansive program to date because it makes virtually all public school students eligible, not just those with special needs or circumstances. If results to date from Arizona and Florida’s targeted ESA programs are any indication, Nevada’s universal program will be the one to watch.
Having the freedom to customize their children’s learning has resulted in an unprecedented 100 percent ESA program satisfaction rating among participating Arizona parents. Program demand is also strong, roughly doubling each year.
Parents in Arizona and Florida report their children are performing better academically and socially because their ESAs enable them to customize instruction and related services. Students at risk of dropping out of high school are now heading off to college. Younger children who were years behind are now performing at grade level. ESAs are truly, as one parent put it, “a game-changer.”
Such results are not surprising. Research has long shown that disadvantaged students attending schools of their parents’ choice perform better in reading and math, have higher high school graduation rates and college attendance rates, and higher college graduation rates than their peers who do not participate in choice programs. Competition for students also results in documented improvements in public school student and school performance.
Sixty years ago Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman argued that just because we finance education through government that does not mean that elected officials in government know what type of education is best for other people’s children.
“Education spending will be most effective,” Friedman insisted, “if it relies on parental choice and private initiative—the building blocks of success throughout our society.”
There is no good reason Oklahoma schoolchildren should be denied the personalized educational opportunities a growing number of students in other states now have because of ESAs. Oklahoma state lawmakers should enact universal ESAs.
Vicki Alger (Ph.D., University of Dallas) is a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, with a forthcoming book on the history of the U.S. Department of Education. Alger holds senior fellowships at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C.