Lindsey M. Burke | January 1, 2017

ESAs Are a Much-Needed Refinement of the Public Education Model

Lindsey M. Burke

By Lindsey Burke

Should Oklahomans care that proposals designed to create education savings accounts (ESAs) didn’t advance in the Legislature in 2016? Ask Susan Agel.

Agel is president of Positive Tomorrows, Oklahoma’s only private school for homeless children. Because her school relies on the generosity of donors to remain tuition-free for students, she is able to enroll only about 58 students each year due to limited resources. Agel says she is “forced to turn away children constantly.” With an ESA option, however, she could enroll many additional children and better serve the needs of the poor.

ESAs are a critically needed refinement of the public education model. Instead of allocating taxpayer funding directly to school districts based on student counts and with little concern for school performance, ESAs enable funding to go directly to parents, who can then choose options—whether private schooling, individual public school courses, tutors, or other options—that best match their children’s unique learning needs.

ESAs would strengthen Oklahoma’s commitment to the public financing of K-12 education by moving away from state-run schools being the sole provider of that education. By separating the financing of education from the delivery of services, ESAs gives parents the power to customize the best possible education for their children.

Had Oklahoma moved on ESAs in 2016, the state would have created accounts without adding a single penny to existing spending on K-12 education. The accounts are funded with the state per-pupil revenue that would have already been spent on a given child in his or her public school. The accounts would have been open to eligible kindergarteners, students with special needs currently or having ever participated in the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program, students enrolled in a public school, new Oklahoma residents, or children of military families new to Oklahoma.

Children from low-income families would have received 90 percent of what would have been spent on them by the state in the public school system, with those from families earning over the poverty line receiving lower per-pupil allocations. Martin Lueken of the organization EdChoice estimates that about 88 percent of Oklahoma school-age children would have been eligible for an ESA.

Eligible students could then use their ESA to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, curricula, tutoring, and a host of other education-related services and products. Families would even be able to roll over unused funds from year to year and could save unused ESA funds for future education-related expenses such as college.

ESAs are gaining popularity because they bring two important features to K-12 education that it often lacks: customization for children and accountability for taxpayers.

Although Oklahoma may have suffered an ESA setback in 2016, the fight is far from over. Many other states are considering ESAs, seeing them as one of the most promising ways forward for education choice. Here’s hoping the Sooner State follows in 2017.

Lindsey Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Lindsey M. Burke


Lindsey M. Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues as the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Burke holds a master of teaching degree from the University of Virginia. Before joining the Heritage Foundation, she taught high school French.

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