To put it mildly, 2020 has not been the year everyone hoped for. Between the “mostly peaceful” riots, calls for the reduction or abolition of police departments, and the discord over how to handle Covid-19, our institutions are in disarray. Most school districts are a mess. Many were caught with no plan for the fall semester, while others lacked a good plan. For example, Stillwater Public Schools implemented a system that only added to the uncertainty and stress. 

The Stillwater plan was to attempt in-person education, but re-evaluate that decision each Friday based on an arbitrarily defined range of area-reported Covid cases. The Friday after school started, the Stillwater district announced it would have classes the next week. Then, on Sunday afternoon, district administrators made a second announcement suspending in-person learning for the upcoming week, forcing parents to make new plans for their children within a very short window of time. The district has yet to resume in-person classes.

Consequently, parents have the added expense of childcare in a time where money is increasingly tight. In addition, given the unfamiliarity with online platforms and lack of student supervision, there is no guarantee that the public school system will effectively educate children this fall (there is scant evidence that they were doing this anyway). As a result, many parents are considering other options. EPIC Charter School has surpassed Tulsa and OKC in size, becoming the largest school “district” in the state.

For those who have the financial means or spare time, options like private schools, tutoring, or homeschooling are alternatives to the chaos of public schools. Unfortunately, many parents are unable to pursue such options, especially given the increased hardship and job loss created by the pandemic. There are some who are concerned that this will create knowledge gaps, which in turn will widen the disparity between the rich and the poor, perpetuating class differences. Fortunately, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) offer a simple solution. 

The 1889 Institute has proposed a model ESA bill that, were it enacted, directs funding to student education instead of the government school system. It creates flexible funding, ensuring that parents can choose the schools that make the most sense for their children.

An ESA is an account administered by the parents in the student’s name, and acts similar to a health savings account or flex spending account that many are familiar with through their job. Funding is drawn from the state allocation of per-child funds to district schools, and may only be used for qualifying educational expenses such as school tuition, books, technology, tutoring, or testing. Enrollment in the program is predicated on an agreement by the parents not to avail themselves of the public-school system. Parents must have the student tested yearly, though they are free to choose from a list of nationally recognized norm-referenced tests. This provides accountability while also securing a great deal of autonomy for the parents.

At the end of the school year, any unused funds may be rolled over to the subsequent year. In addition, the funds may be used at career or tech schools as well as eligible postsecondary institutions. This creates an incentive for parents to economize, as any unused funds may be used to help pay for college. However, the account does not remain open forever; it is permanently closed on the child’s 25th birthday, and any remaining funds are returned to the state’s general operating fund.

Both the Oklahoma and United States Supreme Courts have legally cleared the way for funds from ESA programs to be used at religious schools. The state court ruled that a similar state scholarship program did not violate the “no aid” clause of the Oklahoma Constitution because the money was given to the parent (not the school) who then made an independent decision, free of state control. The court noted that this independence of choice by the parent breaks the circuit between government and religion. This precedent, as well as a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, effectively surpass any legal obstacles that stand in the way of a universal ESA program.  

The unique circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic have magnified the need for universal ESAs, the Courts have clarified their legality, and public support is high. If the legislature truly believes in improving educational outcomes in our state, they must not let this opportunity to implement meaningful school choice reform go to waste.

Tyler Williamson is a Research Associate at 1889 institute and can be reached at twilliamson@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.