Two bills that would have created “education savings accounts,” or ESAs, failed to be heard in the Oklahoma Legislature Thursday. Because Thursday marked the deadline for bills to obtain their third reading in their chamber of origin, HB 2949 and SB 609, at least in their most recent forms, are currently stymied.
Under the now-defunct ESA proposals, taxpayer money would have partially subsidized the transfer of eligible children from from public school to private school for families desiring such a change and who have qualifying income. Children whose parents withdrew them from public schools and enrolled them in the ESA program would receive an account of somewhere under $10,000 that could be used to pay private school tuition and a list of other allowed education expenses.
Despite a somewhat convoluted state-aid formula that includes several variables, ESAs sound like a win-win idea, at least on paper: Exceptional students whose families could otherwise not afford private school enrollment would be able to move them from under-performing schools and into more challenging environments. At the same time, the public school from which the child moved would still receive a portion of that student’s per-pupil funding while not having that student enrolled. Proponents of the bill champion the ability of ESAs to allow parents to choose how their tax money is spent with regard to their children’s education while also increasing per-pupil funding at public schools.
On the other hand, detractors of the bills decried the potential for ESAs to whittle away at already shrinking public school budgets while also promoting racial segregation based on class. Further, Oklahoma’s educational leadership criticized the timing of the proposed legislation.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister on Tuesday questioned the economic viability of introducing an ESA program amid Oklahoma’s ongoing budget crisis. Common education funding has been cut by a total of 7 percent (or $109 million) since December, as reported by the Tulsa World.
Likewise, Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist made her opposition clear, as reported in the same story: “Make no mistake, this bill is not good for our kids. We cannot afford it, and there is no accountability for tax dollars.”
Vouchers all over again
In the Tulsa World story cited above, the term “voucher” is used as a synonymous substitute for ESAs. The newspaper has made this comparison before, and NonDoc’s resident education commentator John Thompson has also echoed the sentiment.
Vouchers were an idea concocted back in the 1950s, as what some say was a reaction to desegregation by subsidizing white flight from newly integrated public schools to more exclusive private schools. In April 2015, PRWatch.org published an in-depth background on vouchers that recounts the racially charged motivations for such programs during the days of Brown v. Board of Education.
In July, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) introduced the template for the modernized version of voucher legislation, and their outline was finalized Jan. 26. Meanwhile, HB 2949, first authored by Rep. Jason Nelson (R-OKC), and SB 609, by Sen. Clark Jolley (R-Edmond), were introduced in Oklahoma’s House Jan. 21 and Jan. 22, respectively.
HB 2949’s final authors included Rep.s Nelson, Newell, Rogers, Strohm, Echols, Jordan, Kern, Hall, Brumbaugh, Moore, Fisher, Johnson and McCullough. On Feb. 17, the bill narrowly passed the House’s Common Education committee with a vote of 9 in favor to 8 opposed. Six of the bill’s authors were also members of that committee.
Five states (Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and Nevada) already have ESA programs, while Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota are considering them.
While the two voucher/ESA bills did not advance this week, the proposal could be considered again this session if legislative leaders believe they have found the votes to pass them. That would involve substituting the ESA language into other bills dealing with the same titles of law that have advanced.