By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY—The State Chamber of Oklahoma Research Foundation has unveiled a comprehensive vision for public policy reforms aiming “to dramatically improve our state’s rankings and prospects.” The OK2030 document, described as “the culmination of a yearlong effort to gather ideas and input from across the state,” includes major education policy reforms, including a trio of proposals to broaden school choice in the Sooner State.
The proposed reforms include expanded open-transfer policies for public schools, establishment of a public charter school authorizer, and creation of Education Savings Accounts.
The 2030 report notes, “Several states have mandatory intra-district and inter-district transfer laws, but Oklahoma law only provides for voluntary inter-district transfers. Oklahoma should expand open transfer policies so Oklahoma students can attend the school they need, not just the school to which they were assigned.”
While “already permitted under state law, there are many barriers to opening a charter school in Oklahoma,” the report notes. “Several states have created a statewide charter authority, which gives parents additional options for receiving charter school approval. Oklahoma needs to create a statewide public charter school authorizer to reduce the barriers for charter school access in Oklahoma.”
For “true school choice,” the report says, “parents need the financial freedom to choose the right learning environment for their child. Education Savings Accounts allow parents to use a portion of their state tax dollars on state-approved education services like textbooks, tutoring, private school tuition or higher education. Education Savings Accounts will help expand access to quality education options for Oklahoma families now.”
The research foundation’s executive director, Jennifer Lepard, told this reporter that education reform “was probably the most important issue of all those raised in our survey for this report. It fits with the overall agenda for economic development, but especially in terms of the needs for the future workforce. We need to provide through policies the motivations for people to stay here, for people to move into the state.”
Lepard continued, “It is essential to our future, giving students an opportunity to access good education, including the option of pursuing a different kind of school. School choice is something we can do right now to improve education, to give kids the chance to move to the school that works best for them.
“The OK2030 program is comprehensive and educational improvements are among our most important goals. We know it takes some time to educate the public on issues such as these, which is an important part of the process.
“Education Savings Accounts actually came up more in the discussion with the public. It was raised often. People seem to have a natural understanding of the issue, but need further education on the details and methods.”
Versions of ESAs have been considered in the state Legislature previously, but have not yet advanced past the committee stage in the state Senate. Last spring, Senate Bill 560, sponsored by Norman Republican Rob Standridge, was discussed. Although that measure would have been limited to Oklahoma, Cleveland, and Tulsa counties, it drew widespread interest because of the stated goals to provide better education for urban students facing challenges to achievement.
SB 560 remains a possible vehicle to advance the idea.
According to Lepard, the OK2030 document was fashioned based on surveys of thousands of business leaders and direct input from citizens who attended six regional forums and/or submitted ideas to OK2030.org.
From the 450 ideas initially submitted, the project steering committee crafted “35 big ideas” that center around four foundational components: “business climate and competitiveness, workforce and talent development, fiscal stability, and quality of life.”
A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. A state-certified schoolteacher in 10 subject areas, he is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.
By Patrick B. McGuigan