Education Savings Accounts

Video courtesy of EdChoice

Testimonials

These Oklahomans have benefited from parental choice in education. ESAs would help even more children.

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Why ESAs?

Your child deserves an education that meets his or her unique needs.

ESAs empower you to choose what is best for your child’s education.

ESAs provide you with many options to choose from.

These options can get your child excited to learn again.

We don’t have to wait,
we can do it now – this year!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)?

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are private accounts managed by parents for use on educational expenses for their child. Parents who choose not to enroll their children in a public school have a portion (not all) of their child’s per-pupil funding deposited into a privately managed bank account. Parents can then use account funds to purchase private school tuition, tutoring services, books and other curricular materials, or even save for college.

What’s the difference between an ESA and a school voucher?

School vouchers allow parents to use public funds to pay private school tuition. An example of a school voucher program in Oklahoma is the popular Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. With ESAs, parents can use student funds for many different expenses, including, but not limited to, private school tuition. As a result, the savings accounts provide parents even more educational choice than vouchers.

How do parents access the funds?

Funds are deposited quarterly and can be accessed with a restricted-use debit card. The funds can only be used for qualified education-related products, providers, and services.

But won’t some schools refuse to enroll ESA students (as opposed to public schools, which have to take all students)?

It’s simply not true that public schools accept all children. As education researcher Greg Forster notes, “over 100,000 students are expelled from public schools each year. Many more are removed from regular classrooms and shunted off into ‘alternative’ programs, where the system doesn’t care whether they get an education. It is also a lie that private schools in choice programs are highly selective and make it difficult for at-risk students to get accepted. Participating parents—of all races, income levels, and even disability statuses—consistently report that they had little difficulty finding a school that served them. This shouldn’t be surprising. Most of these private schools are indigenous to the community and exist precisely to serve these student populations. The typical choice school is an inner-city Catholic school that has always wanted to serve more, not fewer, at-risk students. The choice program allows it to do so.

"Yes, some choice programs do permit private schools to deny admission to particular students they don’t think they can serve well. This is a good thing. The whole point of school choice is that all students are unique and have their own needs. The idea that every school should try to be the right school for every student is the whole problem with the government school monopoly in the first place. When the parents themselves start reporting that they’re having difficulty finding a school to serve them, that is something [we should] take very seriously.”

Will ESA money go to religious schools?

Only if parents want it to. The government does not make that decision; the parents do. Think, for example, of the G.I. Bill. After World War II, American soldiers came home to build the great middle class. The government gave these returning soldiers the choice of how to spend their tax dollars. Some chose to go to fine schools like Notre Dame. That wasn’t the government promoting Catholicism or the government entangling itself in the decisions of the Catholic Church. It was the decision of each individual family of a returning soldier. ESAs would operate on the same principle.

If parents spend funds on tuition at a religious school, does that mean the program violates the separation between church and state?

No. To maintain a proper separation between the state and religion, state constitutions forbid the state from appropriating money directly to religious schools. But no such appropriation could occur under the ESA program. The state may only deposit money into privately controlled accounts. After it does so, the state no longer directs any of the funds. If a parent later chooses to spend savings account funds at a religious school, the state is entirely separated from that decision. That separation means the program does not violate any separation between church and state.

Won’t ESA programs increase segregation?

No. In fact, “school choice reduces racial segregation and provides a more racially integrated school experience,” education researcher Greg Forster points out. “Of the eight studies that have examined racial segregation in private choice programs, seven found that choice moved students from more segregated classrooms and schools into less segregated classrooms and schools; one found no visible difference. No empirical study has ever found that private school choice increased racial segregation. … The government school system is very heavily segregated by race because it’s tied to residence. People tend to live in racially homogeneous neighborhoods, and tend to go to school where they live. School choice breaks down racial barriers by making it possible for students to go to school outside their neighborhoods. Again, the typical private choice school is an inner-city Catholic school—more diverse, not less, than the nearby public schools.

Does participating in the ESA program prevent students from returning to a public school?

No. Parents participating in the program must agree to not enroll their child in a public school while receiving savings account funds. This policy prevents double-dipping of state funds. However, if at any point the parent decides the program is not meeting their child’s needs, the parent may return the funds and re-enroll their student in public school.

Doesn’t the Oklahoma constitution require that funding go to districts rather than students?

No, that argument is based on a misreading of Article 13, section 1(a) of the state constitution. Andrew C. Spiropoulos, the Robert S. Kerr, Sr. Professor of Constitutional Law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, explains that this provision requires the legislature to provide a specified minimum level of funding for public schools but does not require that all education funding go through districts. In addition, both the text of the provision itself and the Supreme Court's repeated rulings regarding education funding make clear that the legislature has the discretion to decide how and (as long as it is above the bare minimum specified) at what level to fund education.

Isn’t it illegal to divert HB 1017 money, Commissioners of the Land Office funds, or other statutorily created funding sources to ESAs?

No. As Andrew C. Spiropoulos, the Robert S. Kerr, Sr. Professor of Constitutional Law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, has pointed out, the HB 1017 fund is a statutory fund that can be modified by the legislature at any time. The same thing is true with any fund created by statute. The general rule is that if a later statute conflicts with a previously enacted one, the later statute prevails. In any event, there is no problem because the HB 1017 fund consists of less than 30 percent of the money appropriated for common education. The ESA funding can come from the bulk of the agency budget funded by general revenues. The same point answers the Land Office funds questions. These funds make up a tiny percentage of the money appropriated to common education. None of that money need be touched.

You can’t take your tax dollars away from the prison system if it doesn’t work for you, so why would it be okay to take away taxes from public schools?

That’s a question raised by Steven Crawford of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration. And though it’s not unreasonable to compare public schools (sometimes unsafe places, replete with metal detectors and security guards, and sometimes placed on lockdown) to prisons, the truth is that we do sometimes take our tax dollars from the prison system. Policymakers actually voucherize (if you will) some of the corrections budget, contracting with private prisons for certain services.

In any case, the education of our children isn’t like prisons or (to use another common example) highways. Rather, as Andrew Spiropoulos and Brandon Dutcher have pointed out, education is a public service that can be compared to health care for the elderly. “It is a particular benefit intended for particular people at a particular time in their life. A wise and generous people that decides to provide this benefit doesn’t insist that Grandma go to the public hospital for her medical care—they pay whatever doctor she decides will provide the care she needs. We believe that everyone in society benefits when our senior citizens have access to necessary health care, so all of us who work pay to make sure our seniors have access to the health care they need. We trust that when our time comes, the same support will be there for us. Education works the same way. We all pay to educate our children, because we believe an educated citizenry is indispensable to a free society. We pay before we have children, we pay while they are in school, and we pay long after they have finished. We pay even if we never have children. All a parent asks is that, when the time comes to educate my own children, I am permitted to use the public resources allocated to my child (there is a reason schools call it 'per-pupil' spending) in the way that is best for him or her.”

Aren’t ESAs just another entitlement program?

No. ESAs use money that the state is already spending. Instead of the state deciding how that money is spent, the choice is given to parents.

But wouldn’t an ESA program, unlike our public schools, lack accountability?

No. First of all, it is not at all clear that public schools are “accountable.” It’s important to understand that “rules” and “regulations” are not synonymous with “accountability.” Consider this observation from Eddie Evans of Youth Services of Tulsa: “We’ve got kids in 11th and 12th grade who can't read at a third-grade level. How’d they get there?” Rev. Donald Tyler, an African-American preacher in Tulsa, is also on record saying “I have kids in my church who have graduated who can't read.” So in what sense are public schools “accountable”? Have the ineffective teachers and administrators been fired? Have taxpayers gotten their money back? When an Oklahoma educator with a doctorate in education reminds us that “more than 20 percent of our state’s population, or nearly 400,000 people, can’t read,” it is difficult to make the case that public schools are truly “accountable.”

Private schools participating in an ESA program would have true accountability. As the Friedman Foundation points out, “private schools are primarily accountable to parents and caregivers, who can pull their children out of a school that fails to serve them. By contrast, if a public school fails to perform, parents are essentially powerless. They have very little practical means to hold the school accountable; they are stuck, unless they are able to move to another school district. Private schools are not just accountable to families, however. They are accountable to the general public and government authorities. Private schools in every state comply with a vast array of health and safety regulations, anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, and even rules covering the minimum number of school days. In addition, most private schools already are required to undertake financial audits and evaluate student performance using standardized tests.”

Do Oklahomans favor ESAs?

Yes. The December 2015 edition of Sooner Survey (500 registered voters in Oklahoma, margin of error +/- 4.3 percent) contained this item: “Education Savings Accounts—often called ESAs—is a proposal which would allow parents to take a portion of the yearly state funding which is currently used to educate their child in a traditional public school and create a personalized account to fund their child’s education expenses. These expenses could be customized to include private or parochial school tuition, online education programs, tutoring, and books, and other future college expenses. These Education Savings Accounts would be administered and overseen by the state and would contain taxpayer protections against fraudulent activity or misuse of funds. Would you favor or oppose Oklahoma creating education savings accounts?” Fully 54 percent of respondents favor ESAs, while 37 percent oppose (8 percent are undecided). And as the state’s largest newspaper points out, this survey is but the latest "in a line of polls finding similar results in Oklahoma."

Isn’t there potential for fraud in an ESA program?

We already know that fraudulent activity occurs in some of Oklahoma’s public school districts, such as McAlester, Swink, Grant-Goodland, and others. While fraud is always possible in any program, ESAs are designed with built-in mechanisms to protect taxpayers.