Monday, October 5, 2015

Four ideas for expanding school choice in Oklahoma

[Guest post by Patrick Gibbons]

Oklahoma already has two private-school choice programs which are making a big difference in the lives of children. Unfortunately, the programs only serve a tiny fraction of Oklahoma students. Here’s how policymakers could help more children.

Expand Tax Credit Scholarships

We know that tax credit scholarships are popular among the voting public. Policymakers should look to improve and expand Oklahoma’s existing program. They should remove the cap on corporate and individual donations so both groups can donate as much as they wish and also increase the total cap above the current $3.5 million, which is a just a tenth of one percent of Oklahoma’s state appropriations for education. Moreover, adding an “escalator” to the cap can allow the program to grow automatically if scholarship organizations raise 90 percent of the funds for the current cap. In addition, offering tiered scholarships based on income level can ensure equity by providing lower-income families with more financial support.

Provide Individual Tax Credits for Education Expenses

Parents paying for private education or home education have to pay twice: once in taxes to support public schools and again for tuition, fees, textbooks, and school supplies. To address some of this unfairness, some states now offer tax credits for these education expenses. Illinois has the largest tax credit program with nearly 300,000 families earning credits up to $500 for educational expenses. [Model legislation for Oklahoma is here.]

Individual tax credits for education expenses are subject to one major criticism: you only get tax credits up to the amount you owe in taxes. Since wealthier families tend to owe the most in taxes, they will get the largest tax credits. Which brings us to the next policy proposal.

Provide Refundable Tax Credits for Private School Expenses

One solution to the problem mentioned above is a refundable tax credit for educational expenses, such as exists in South Carolina. That program allows parents of special-needs children to receive up to $10,000 in tax credits for educational expenses. If the credits exceed your tax bill then you receive a tax refund for the difference. This ensures that the rich aren’t the biggest beneficiary of the program. (However, not all families can afford to wait several months for the refund.)

Create Education Savings Accounts

When Arizona’s special-needs voucher program was declared unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court speculated that a program which allowed parents to choose more than just private schools could be constitutional. Thus, the nation’s first ESA program was born.

With an ESA, the state funds an educational account parents can access to pay tuition, school fees, textbooks, school supplies, curriculum, and therapies. In Florida, for example, parents can even contract out services with charter, virtual, and district public schools. Under ESA programs, reimbursements are reduced from months to weeks, or can be immediate through the use of a debit card.

[Former OCPA research assistant Patrick Gibbons (M.A. in political science, University of Oklahoma) is the public affairs manager at Step Up for Students, an organization providing scholarships for low-income and special-needs schoolchildren in Florida. A former schoolteacher, Gibbons also serves as a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.]

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