The truth about "Education Savings Accounts"

It's not a new idea, but the plan to create savings accounts for students living in poverty is making waves in Oklahoma.

HB 3398, currently moving through the House of Representatives, calls for the state to take the money set aside for an individual student and let their parents decide how to spend it best.
Positive Tomorrows is a private school that would benefit from the bill. Staff members work with homeless children to help turn around their lives. They believe their small class sizes and specially trained teachers offer students what public schools can't.

"There may be behavioral issues that crop up during the school day and you don't realize that child has everything they own in their backpack hanging in the hallway cause they're not sure where they're going to go that evening," said Positive Tomorrows President and Principal Susan Agel.

This school year Agel had to turn away nearly 80 students. It's a problem she hopes the bill helps solve.

State Reps Jason Nelson Tom Newell drafted it to create education savings accounts (ESAs) for families in poverty.

"If they don't get an education life is bleak," Nelson said.

Families can use the money for private specialty schools like Positive Tomorrows or they can put the money toward tutoring, supplies and even extracurricular activities. The money they don't spend can roll over to a college savings account. And if it's not used within four years of high school graduation, the money reverts back to the state.

Nelson believes it's a win-win because districts keep the percent the students don't use.

"They take anywhere from 90 to 60 and in some cases 30 percent of the public school funding with them, leaves the remainder behind to distribute back to the formula among fewer students," he said.

According to his calculations, ESA will actually increase the per-pupil spending in Oklahoma schools because it allows students to leave for private education but keeps a portion of their allotted money with the districts.

Click here for the calculation break-down.

But some teachers say the bill skirts the real problem with schools. Oklahoma Education Association President Linda Hampton notes that Oklahoma has lost $200 million in state education funding in the past six years.

"We need to stop digging the hole. And let's start funding education because that is the great equalizer," she said.

She believes that public schools and teachers can address the individualized needs of students if they have the money and resources to do so.

"The solution is to sit down and have dialogue and figure out what works," she said.

Critics also worry about a mass exodus of students from public to private schools. But Nelson refutes that, citing the Henry Scholarship that offers a similar program for students with disabilities in Oklahoma. Around .02 percent of eligible students use them. Nelson expects similar numbers with the poverty standard version of the law.

Positive Tomorrows currently teaches 51 students. Agel says studies show kids with a home life that consists of constant stress develop differently. She cites studies that show their brains are chemically behind because of their situation, not to mention that many kids in poverty do not learn colors or many words before starting school.

"They're just so far behind before they even start. And we need to make up that ground," she said.

She calls the ESA proposal an investment in children and in the future of the state.

The savings account will not cover the complete cost of most private schools, like Positive Tomorrows. But Agel says charitable giving can usually cover the rest.
Other schools in Oklahoma specialize in teens dealing with addiction and children who have a parent in prison. The ESA can also be used for religious-based private school.