Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Setting the record straight on ESAs and accountability

Dr. Donnie Peal
[Guest post by Donnie Peal, executive director of the Oklahoma Private School Accreditation Commission]

One of the most exciting proposals of this legislation session has centered around Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs.

ESAs give every qualified parent control over a portion of the tax dollars that are assigned for their child’s education. That money can be used to support private school tuition, tutoring, online learning and a variety of other customizable options.

Two of the most widely used arguments by opponents of ESAs are: 1) they offer no accountability on how dollars are spent, and 2) they will be used mainly by wealthy parents sending their children to wealthy schools.

Those arguments are wrong.

First, to address accountability: It is quite clear in the legislation being proposed this year that ESA money can only be used for legitimate educational expenses like private school tuition, tutoring fees, or the costs associated with enrolling in a virtual class.

The money cannot be used on field trips, or spent on computers, or used to pay the “salary” of a parent homeschooling their children. The specter of a negligent parent cashing in on ESA dollars is a scare tactic, not a plausible outcome.

Furthermore, ESAs would only be available to support accredited private schools. As the executive director of the Oklahoma Private School Accreditation Commission, I am intimately familiar with the rigor and the quality of accreditation standards and processes approved to accredit private schools in Oklahoma. Those standards and processes are required by law to be equivalent to state accreditation standards for public schools. In fact, the rigor of the accreditation process and the requirements of the standards used by associations approved to accredit private schools in the state often exceed that of state public school accreditation.

Accredited private schools in the state consistently compare very favorably with Oklahoma’s best public schools in their academic offerings and quality, usually having lower teacher/student ratios and sometimes being far superior in the attention they can pay to children with special needs. In addition, accredited private schools are required to maintain compliance with requirements related to foundational school operations and practices such as nondiscrimination with regard to race and ethnic origin, financial management and accountability, student health and safety, etc., just as public schools are. 

ESAs, therefore, would have significant government oversight and accountability attached to them on multiple regulatory levels. Furthermore, ESA’s would be consistent with and supportive of the ultimate accountability mechanism – the ability of parents to move their children and tuition dollars elsewhere.

The second argument widely used by ESA opponents regards the economic makeup of private schools. One of the important facts that has gotten lost somewhere in this debate is that many private schools are as economically and racially diverse as public schools.

For example, Sacred Heart Catholic School in Oklahoma City has a student body that is 93 percent Hispanic and an overall 79 percent student eligibility for free-and-reduced-priced lunch. The vast majority of its students are able to go there because of scholarships offered through Sacred Heart Church. ESAs would support that school and help provide more children in south Oklahoma City with a great education.

Another example is Positive Tomorrows in Oklahoma City. This school is a school for homeless children. The staff there are taking children in otherwise hopeless situations from those desperate circumstances, offering them a quality education and teaching them that they have a bright future. ESAs would allow them to bestow that bright future on more children who are currently falling through the cracks.

In fact, the data supports the fact that private schools in the state serve families from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. While data is not available for all private schools in the state, reporting for 95 of the 131 private schools in Oklahoma accredited by approved private school accrediting associations for the 2014-15 school year showed that 24 percent of those schools provided some amount of need-based financial aid to students attending those schools. In addition, data reported for 87 of those schools revealed that they provided over $2.2 million in financial aid to students attending those schools.

Finally, ESAs shift power away from institutions to parents, and shift the focus of education funding from individual schools to individual children. For some, that will admittedly be a radical notion. But isn’t that what education is supposed to be about – the students? Parents have the responsibility to ensure their child receives a quality education, and, for the most part, have a basic understanding of whether or not a particular school, whether public or private, is best meeting their child’s educational needs. In addition, as indicated consistently through polling data that shows strong support among parents for expanded school choice opportunities, parents have a strong desire to choose the education for their child that best meets his or her needs. Those school choice opportunities are widely available, and receive government support and funding, at the post-secondary level and, to a certain extent, at the early childhood level. 

Sadly, however, school choice opportunities are few and far between at the K-12th grade level. Many parents, unfortunately, find themselves unable to ensure that their child attends a school providing a quality education that best meets his/her individual needs.

ESAs are an important step in providing opportunities that will help empower parents to make educational choices that are best for their child. While the debate continues about ESA authorization in Oklahoma, I feel very strongly that proponents on both sides of the issue must keep the focus on what is best for the children of Oklahoma. Certainly, the debate will be considerably more productive if we can agree to drop misleading arguments about accountability and class.

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