St. Rep. Jason Nelson Credit: Warren Vieth / Oklahoma Watch
State Rep. Jason Nelson
State Rep. Jason Nelson Credit: Warren Vieth / Oklahoma Watch

Four years ago, state Rep. Jason Nelson challenged the status quo in education by authoring the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act. The measure allowed parents of special-needs students to use state dollars to pay private school tuition and other educational expenses. About 280 students are now participating.

This year, Nelson is aiming higher. He’s pushing legislation that would allow lower-income and middle-income families to take a portion of the approximately $4,900 in state and local per-pupil spending and put it in education savings accounts to spend outside the public school system. Under Nelson’s bill, a family of four earning up to about $44,000 would receive 90 percent of the per-pupil allocation to use on private educational services. The state contribution would fall to 60 percent for families earning up to $66,000 and 30 percent for families earning up to $88,000.

In an interview with Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth, Nelson describes his ESA plan and responds to criticism by educators that it would erode the quality of public schools. He also talks about two other hot-button education bills he is sponsoring: a “parent trigger” law that would let people petition for removal of school administrators, and a one-year delay in implementing Common Core education standards. The interview has been edited and condensed.

In a nutshell, how would education savings accounts work?

The money would be placed into an account that the state treasurer would manage. It would come with a debit card. They could use the debit card at a private school or to purchase virtual online education services. They could buy curriculum, educational therapies and services, tutoring. They could even purchase educational services from a public school, charter school, or any combination of those things.

If they have money left over, they can roll it over and save it for college or some post-secondary educational purpose. If they’re four years out of high school and they didn’t use the money, then it reverts back to the state.

Can you cite a couple of examples of how ESAs could be used?

There is a school here in town, Positive Tomorrows; they only serve children who are homeless. There’s another school that serves only children who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. There’s a private school that serves children who have a parent or immediate family member who is, or has been, incarcerated.

There are people who want to serve these kids. The portion of the money that would go to the public schools can follow the kid to these private schools and allow the private dollars to go further.

You’ve characterized this as anti-poverty legislation? Why?

It helps kids that are trapped in schools that can’t serve their needs. You have no options if you’re on the lower end of the economic spectrum. If you’re well-to-do, you can go wherever you want to go. But if you’re in poverty, and the way out of poverty is through a good education but you can’t get it where you live, this gives you an option to put something else together.

It’s focused on the folks that are in poverty because they’re the ones that have the least choices now, or no choices.

Why limit this to lower-income and middle-income people? Why not make it available to everybody?

Because you couldn’t get the other passed. It’s going to be hard to get this passed.

Isn’t this a variation on the voucher concept?

Well, it’s the money following the students. It’s like we do with Medicaid. It’s like subsidized preschool for low-income families through DHS.

If a parent thinks that they can take pennies on the dollar to go to this other school over here that may be private, or do a combination of private and virtual, or use curriculum at home, (and if they think) this the best fit for that child, and we get to keep the difference in the public system, then everybody comes out a winner.

What we’re talking about is making the system work better for the kids in a way that actually saves the public system money. The kids that stay in the public school benefit from the private decisions that other parents are making.

If the students who are left in public schools are the least likely to succeed, doesn’t it almost guarantee those schools won’t do well?

I’ve got two children in public school. I’ve not yet talked to any parent that sees their child as a funding unit for the public school system. None of us see our kids that way. It’s silly to make an argument like that: “Your child needs to come to this school because they’re a funding unit and we need to have that.”

The people who are leaving are the people that aren’t getting their needs met. If you’re happy, then you’re going to stay. If the school’s not working for your child for whatever reason, you should have no obligation to stay.

Aren’t the people most likely to leave also the most concerned, and if they had stayed, the most likely to apply pressure to improve things?

Well, that’s not the way it works. Maybe you can find it happening in some isolated cases. But the reality is, you leave because it’s not working.

Children don’t have an obligation to the state of Oklahoma to go a school that’s not meeting their needs. It’s a totally backward system. Does the school exist for the children, or do the children exist for the school? I take the former position. The schools exist to serve the children.

How many families do you think might participate?

I would be surprised if in the first several years you saw more than a half a percent of the total eligible student population.

I think the public schools are meeting most kids’ needs fine. I have more confidence in the public schools than the people in the public schools that are bellyaching about this. Because the reality is, I think the public schools are doing a good job overall.

But even the best school in the state can’t meet the unique needs of every single child that lives in that feeder zone. It’s just impossible. And I don’t expect the impossible from the public school system. They can’t make it happen for every kid.

How would your parent trigger legislation work?

If you have a school site which is experiencing poor performance, and you’re getting no response from the school board, that’s an avenue that lets the parents in that neighborhood whose kids go to that school force change to happen.

If a majority of the parents sign a petition, they can trigger administrative changes at the school. They can work to hire a different operator than the school district to turn the school around.

Why is the parent trigger concept so contentious?

Because if parents were to do a petition, that’s obviously a more public event than a few parents here and there around the state choosing to go to a different school. If a group of parents organize and start circulating a petition, that’s going to make the newspaper.

Why are you trying to postpone implementation of Common Core?

We’ve gotten into this rut politically, this false choice where you either keep Common Core or you get rid of it. But people on both sides say we want good high rigorous standards, free of federal or external control. OK, then, let’s focus on that.

My bill … gives school districts an additional year to prepare for full implementation. It lets the public and the educators and the parents and the business people and higher education have an additional year to weigh in on it. It’s not a repeal. It’s simply a period of study.

Warren Vieth can be reached at

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