State legislators renew efforts to start education savings accounts

Jason Nelson speaks during a recent forum about proposed education spending accounts at Bishop McGuinness High School. (Garett Fisbeck)

Jason Nelson speaks during a recent forum about proposed education spending accounts at Bishop McGuinness High School. (Garett Fisbeck)

Oklahoma City metro proponents of a school voucher-type system recently renewed efforts to pass state legislation allowing education savings accounts. Public information forums held Jan. 19 and 21 at two local private schools were part of those efforts.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, would allow parents to use portions of public tax funds to enroll children in private schools, online or virtual courses, tutoring, concurrent college courses and educational therapies and services. It also would allow parents to use tax funds for textbooks, other curriculum materials and fees for nationally standardized tests used for college admission requirements.

However, it would not pay for computer hardware or common supplies like pencils and paper.

The legislation would set the Oklahoma Board of Education with the task of defining acceptable tutoring and the eligibility of educational therapies.

State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, and Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, are entering their third year of proposing ESAs.

Discussions at Mount St. Mary Catholic High School in southside OKC and Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School in north OKC allowed community members to ask written questions to the two Oklahoma legislators who favor the measure.

Answering questions

Nelson submitted House Bill 2949 on Jan. 21. It has similar language as his bill last year, HB 2003. Jolley’s bill, Senate Bill 609, was held from a final vote last year to allow it to be considered in this year’s legislative session.

Nelson characterized the bills as “almost identical.”

In the Jan. 21 forum, Nelson described the plan as “an unprecedented ability to customize your kids’ education.”

“It’s really changing the dynamic of education from being focused on children as a group to focused on children as individual people — what’s best for the specific child,” Nelson said.

The ESA concept would allow parents to receive an “education benefits card,” much like current recipients of food and medical state aid receive now.

Moderator Scott Mitchell said guests sent over 50 questions, written on notecards, to the legislators.

They mostly centered on three topics: how the plan would be financed, how it would affect public schools and who would be allowed to use it.

Nelson said under his plan, qualified parents could use a portion of their “per-pupil funding” for the ESAs. Some of the per-pupil funding would remain within the school district, he told forum guests.

Program funding

Nelson said per-pupil funds are determined in part by a sliding scale based on household income, which is measured against federal guidelines regarding free and reduced lunch programs. Those with higher household incomes would receive less “portable” funds.

In response to questions about the impact of ESAs on public schools, Jolley and Nelson said they believed the potential for harm is exaggerated.

If passed, their plans would utilize much of the per-pupil ESA funds on the parent-selected options. Remaining funds would be spent in public schools.

Questions were raised about who could take advantage of the plan.

Nelson said that homeschoolers and students currently enrolled in private schools would be ineligible.

“This will not take money out of public schools for students who might have gone there,” Nelson said. “Their public schools are not receiving money for them right now, anyway. It is only for those who are there and then decide to go elsewhere.”

After the forum ended, Lathonya Shivers told Oklahoma Gazette that she has two children in two different Catholic schools, making them ineligible for ESAs.

“I came here to find out about funding and how this might help children who are living in poverty,” Shivers said.

She added that Nelson and Jolley were thorough.

Not all attendees felt as satisfied.

In recent years, Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education member Phil Horning has lobbied the Oklahoma Legislature on his own time to help keep public education funding fully dedicated to public schools.

Without going into detail, he said the presentation “was disappointingly one-sided and misleading.”

The forums were organized and sponsored by Scissortail Community Development Corporation, which promotes parent education and choice for schooling through one of their programs, ChoiceMatters.

According to Scissortail’s COO Robert Ruiz, The Walton Family Foundation and “other local donors” fund Scissortail CDC and its programs, which include ChoiceMatters.

Jan. 7, The Associated Press reported the Walton foundation “has spent more than $1 billion on K-12 education over the past 20 years, including $385 million to help start charter schools in poor communities.”

 

Print Headline: Choice language, Two Oklahoma legislators host public forums to answer community questions about education savings accounts.

Brett Dickerson

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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