Education Savings Accounts bear watching

March 2, 2014

Brandon Dutcher

Given some of its left-of-center funders and its membership in a George Soros-funded network of lefty news organizations, I’ve been keeping watch on Oklahoma Watch, a relatively new nonprofit journalism organization.

But I want to give credit where credit is due. In January Oklahoma Watch solicited from OCPA an op-ed discussing the 5oth anniversary of the War on Poverty (Tina Dzurisin’s excellent piece is here). And last month Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth had a very informative interview with state Rep. Jason Nelson on the subject of Education Savings Accounts (“School-Choice Push: Education Savings Accounts and a ‘Parent Trigger’ Law”).

Of course, when you think about it, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) should very much appeal to compassionate liberals and Democrats. As Rep. Nelson explained in the interview:

There is a school here in town, Positive Tomorrows; they only serve children who are homeless. There’s another school that serves only children who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. There’s a private school that serves children who have a parent or immediate family member who is, or has been, incarcerated.

There are people who want to serve these kids. The portion of the money that would go to the public schools can follow the kid to these private schools and allow the private dollars to go further. …

It helps kids that are trapped in schools that can’t serve their needs. You have no options if you’re on the lower end of the economic spectrum. If you’re well-to-do, you can go wherever you want to go. But if you’re in poverty, and the way out of poverty is through a good education but you can’t get it where you live, this gives you an option to put something else together.

It’s focused on the folks that are in poverty because they’re the ones that have the least choices now, or no choices. … [I]t’s the money following the students. It’s like we do with Medicaid. It’s like subsidized preschool for low-income families through DHS. …

Children don’t have an obligation to the state of Oklahoma to go a school that’s not meeting their needs. It’s a totally backward system. Does the school exist for the children, or do the children exist for the school? I take the former position. The schools exist to serve the children.

A new survey released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and OCPA shows that ESAs are popular among Oklahoma Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Respondents were asked:

An “education savings account” — often called an ESA — allows parents to take their child out of a public district or charter school and receive a payment into a government-authorized savings account with restricted, but multiple, uses. Parents can then use these funds to pay for private school tuition, virtual education programs, private tutoring, or saving for future college expenses. In general, do you favor or oppose this kind of savings account system?

A full 56 percent of Oklahomans favor the ESA idea, while 34 percent oppose. Among those Oklahomans who have a child in school, the margin is even wider: 63 percent to 31 percent.

ESAs have the support of Oklahoma Republicans (65 percent to 27 percent), Democrats (50 percent to 39 percent), and Independents (54 percent to 35 percent).