| January 28, 2013

Let's empower parents with Education Savings Accounts

Imagine a state where a mom using Medicaid could only take her daughter to a government hospital, or where child care subsidies from the state could only be used at a government-operated daycare center. Imagine a state where Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program scholarships were granted only to students who enrolled at the college or university nearest their home, and that it had to be a public institution. Better yet, imagine a state in which high school students could only attend the nearest public college or university.

Needless to say these programs would face significant operational challenges and would fail many Oklahomans the programs are intended to serve. Sadly, this is the mode of operation for providing funding for K-12 public education. Currently in Oklahoma, a child’s residential address largely determines the educational fate of that child. The current state funding formula essentially says to parents: You will only get state assistance for your child’s education if you go to a school designated by bureaucrats—regardless of that school’s performance or quality. This is unfair and discriminatory.

Now imagine an Oklahoma where families, students and educators were connected by state resources to achieve the maximum in education effectiveness, flexibility and efficiency. Imagine a state where students and parents can make a choice about where students will receive an education best tailored for the learning needs of each student. Imagine a state K-12 funding mechanism that can be used to allow students and families to take supplemental courses as needed at institutions of higher learning when traditional methods are not adequate or satisfactory. This can be accomplished in Oklahoma by implementing a state-funded education savings account (ESA).

Arizona is the only state so far to establish any form of ESAs, but as Dr. Matthew Ladner points out, “education savings accounts are the way of the future.”

Under such accounts—managed by parents with state supervision to ensure accountability—parents can use their children’s education funding to choose among public and private schools, online education programs, certified private tutors, community colleges and even universities.

Education savings accounts allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs and other higher education expenses.

To empower parents and students, it’s time for Oklahoma to change its outdated funding program. Oklahoma should convert its funding mechanism for state support of K-12 education to funding ESAs. It is time to be student- and parent-centered. It’s time to fund students, not schools.

For starters, Oklahoma should begin to offer ESAs for newly enrolled pre-K students starting with the 2013-2014 school year. If parents or guardians choose not to enroll their preschooler in a public pre-K program, the state will deposit the state’s portion of pre-K funds into the parents’ savings account. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), state funding (excluding local and federal aid) for 4-year-olds averages $3,461 per student in Oklahoma. Parents choosing the ESA could use this money for any of the multiple alternatives mentioned above.

Ideally, the program would be expanded every year, so that parents of K-12 students could also benefit from ESAs.

This will instill in students, parents and families the paradigm shift to saving, planning and engaging in education throughout life.

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