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Education Savings Accounts: Friends or Foes?

A bill pending in the legislature aims to make private school accessible for more Oklahomans, but opponents say the plan robs public education of much needed funding. Reporter Emily Wendler has this story.

Positive Tomorrows is a small, very selective private school in Oklahoma City.

It’s only for homeless children.

The principal, Susan Agel, says her students require extra attention because they experience trauma on a daily basis. It’s extra care, she says, that they’d never get in a larger public school.  

“We’re able to look at each child on a very individual basis, you know, where they spent the night before, what’s going on at home.”

She knows there are a lot more kids out there that could benefit from a school like Positive Tomorrows, but currently they don’t have the room, or the funds, to expand.

However, there’s a bill in the Senate that could help schools like Positive Tomorrows grow.

Senator Clark Jolley’s Senate Bill 609 proposes giving all students in the public school system the opportunity to switch to a private school education instead.  

He says there are a lot of kids in public school that aren’t getting the special attention they need—and they’re stuck because of their parent’s income.

“If you’re wealthy enough you can move in to a school district that’s high performing. If you’re wealthy enough you can put your children in to a private school. But for the vast majority of Oklahomans they don’t have that opportunity.”

Jolley wants to give these Oklahomans a way out-- with an Education Savings Account.

It works like this—under his bill a parent could take their kid out of public school and take the money the state spends on their kid—with them.

Those tax payer dollars would then go in a savings account that the parent would have to use for private school tuition, homeschooling materials, or other educational tools.

“However you choose to best educate your child in the manner that best helps them. That’s what we’re going to allow you to do.”

But not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

The president of the Oklahoma Education Association, Linda Hampton, argues that Senator Jolley’s bill would take vital resources away from public schools.

“In Oklahoma since 2008 we have already lost $200 million in funding for public schools. So each of these students that pulls out of the public schools takes money away from an already cash strapped system.”

Hampton says the money should stay with the public system because that’s where 90 percent of kids go. She says public schools need to be able to meet all children’s needs.

“There are children that face different challenges when they learn and teachers realize what those challenges are and they realize how to help them. And there is nothing sadder than to know that you don’t have the resources to help a child learn.”

But Jolley thinks public schools would actually benefit financially under his plan. If a child did leave the school, 20 percent of the money would stay after the kid left—which in his mind is like a bonus  because the school doesn’t have to spend it educating a child.

However, according to Hampton - just because a student leaves doesn’t mean there are fewer costs.

“It doesn’t matter how many you have in that classroom—you still have to pay the teacher, you still have to pay the lighting, you still have to pay the electricity. But as a child leaves, you have less money to do that.”

Hampton says public school kids already have to have bake sales to buy new text books and technology. To her it is just fundamentally wrong that the public’s tax dollars-- her student’s resources-- would to private institutions.

Jolley disagrees.

He says the states mission is not to provide a public school system—the goal and the responsibility of the state is to educate the public.

He says it’s time we start thinking outside of the box, because he thinks the box we’re using is currently broken.

If Senate Bill 609 passes, schools like Positive Tomorrows could get more funding, expand, and potentially help more children.

Hampton just worries that not every kid has a parent to advocate for them and put them in a special program. She says that’s the role they play at the public schools. 

Emily Wendler was KOSU's education reporter from 2015 to 2019.
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