Celebrate School Choice Week

by John Tidwell

As we celebrate School Choice Week across the country this last week of January, I begin to think about the real potential that school choice presents in Oklahoma. For those who aren’t too familiar with the concept of school choice, it’s exactly what you think, empowering parents to make the best decisions for their children and giving them choice in their education.

For far too long, the education establishment in Oklahoma has been very comfortable with the status quo. School Choice brings a free-market approach to education, which is a scary threat to their business as usual attitude. There are 2 concepts in school choice, which are gaining favor, and attention in the state: education savings accounts and charter schools.

This legislative session, State Reps. Jason Nelson and Tom Newell have proposed legislation to create Education Savings Accounts (ESA) in the state. The ESA’s created in House Bill 3398 will allow for parents to direct their tax dollars, which would have gone to a public school, to use in a school of their choice. For example, if a student is not excelling in a their current school or are forced to attend a public school which isn’t meeting expectations for their child, the parents have the option to send their child AND their state funding elsewhere.

If the child is eligible for free and reduced lunch, they would be able to take 90 percent of the state funding to attend a school that would better fit their needs. For children with family income up to 150 percent of the reduced lunch rate they would be able to take 60 percent of state funding the school would be allotted and use it to attend a school of their choice. Of course, this still leaves either a 10 or 40% share to be made up by the families, if they send their child to a private school.

The public schools would either have an additional 10% or 40% remaining funds to spread across per-pupil spending. For one, it gives the schools more money to teach a smaller number of students but more importantly, it gives the child a better chance at success in a school which serves the families needs.

Education is not one size fits all and the state’s public schools are not meeting requirements to adequately educate Oklahoma children. If we truly want to move education into the 21st century, we must give children the tools they need to succeed outside of a traditional public school classroom. By being more proactive and helping children earlier, there is a greater likelihood of graduation and success in life.

In the school choice debate, there is another aspect, which is also gaining ground, public charter schools. Just one of the many successes in the school choice story is public charter schools. To the surprise of many, charter schools are indeed public schools. Charters are deregulated public schools which are permitted freedom to be more innovative in method, while adhering to strict academic standards and accountability, raising expectations, and improving student achievement.

While many Oklahoma parents and students have made great strides with successful charter schools in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City, we can and should do more. Currently, there is a bill in the Legislature, Senate Bill 573, that would allow any community across the state to seek a charter school authorization for their area. This simply means a rural dependent school district, for example, the opportunity to expand its options for its parents, students, and teachers through innovation while preserving the anchor of their rural community—their school—for generations to come.

John Tidwell is the State Director of Americans For Prosperity Oklahoma.