With its recent adoption of opportunity scholarships, Oklahoma has become a leader in tapping the power of school choice to help families and society as a whole. The potential exists to draw on this power to help military families, who sacrifice greatly to serve the nation.
With four major military bases and installations, including Fort Sill and Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma has a significant military presence. More than 17,000 school-age children from military homes live in the Sooner State.
Redeployment is a necessary part of military life, one that puts a strain on parents seeking educational continuity and quality for their children. Department of Defense data show that military children typically attend six to nine school systems through their K-12 years, with at least two transfers in high schools. Underscoring the angst of military families as they scramble to find adequate schooling is the sad reality that about half of public schools enrolling military dependents fail to meet basic state standards.
A new concept in school choice that could especially help military families is the Empowerment Scholarship Account. An ESA allows eligible parents to withdraw their children from assigned public schools and get 90 percent of their per-pupil funding for deposit into an education account. They then can withdraw money to pay for private school tuition, online instruction, tutorial services, textbooks or future college expenses.
Matthew Ladner, senior adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, has argued that this type of reform has the advantage of giving families “the broadest possible market among education delivery methods, and true ownership of funds.”
Essentially, an ESA enables eligible families to customize their children's education, drawing on private-sector resources as necessary. In addition to military families, an ESA could target areas of need such as children in foster care or pupils in chronically failing schools. Arizona recently enacted an ESA law with such coverage.
As parents shopped for the best instruction for their children, something called blended learning could become a hugely important model. This approach combines online and face-to-face instruction. Teachers can use the latest advances in digital learning to direct instruction to individual students' strengths and weaknesses, producing powerful new efficiencies in learning.
Increased options for online education allow parents, some of them engaged in homeschooling, to play a central role. In some variations, students might meet just once or twice a week in a conventional classroom.
Any notion that military choice would drain resources from public schools is bogus. By relieving public schools of the cost of teaching the departing military students while leaving part of their per-pupil appropriation in place, an ESA actually would produce a small windfall for public coffers. A study done for the Independent Women's Forum estimated an annual $92 million savings nationwide if all states and localities had ESAs for military families.
Soifer and Holland are policy analysts for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. (www.lexingtoninstitute.org).