7 Observations on Oklahoma Voters and Pre-K–12 Education

An ambitious school choice proposal is on the table in Oklahoma. Last week, state legislators introduced a bill to create an education savings account system (ESA) for low- and middle-income students. (See a short video of the press conference and an explanation of how ESAs work.)

The proposal is bigger than Arizona’s ESA program, a pioneering policy that has provided crucial lessons for implementation in other states. (see here, here, and here for research on ESAs) Similarly, our release this week of the “Oklahoma K-12 & School Choice Survey” provides states interested in ESAs a new perspective on how voters react to this innovative plan.

Oklahomans are much more likely to support ESAs than oppose them. The margin in favor of ESAs is very large (+22 points). A solid majority of respondents (56 percent) support an “education savings account system”; just one-third (34 percent) oppose ESAs.

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All demographic groups showed a propensity toward supporting ESAs. No group registered a larger proportion of negative responses than positive responses. Young voters (ages 18 to 34), Republicans, and school parents exhibited the biggest margins of support and represent the groups most likely to be on board today.

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The positive intensity for ESAs is highest among young voters (ages 18 to 34), school parents, and Republicans. There is mild negative intensity among older voters and Democrats. 

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Oklahomans prefer universal access to ESAs rather than limited eligibility based on financial need. Nearly six out of 10 voters (58 percent) said they agree with the statement that “ESAs should be available to all families, regardless of incomes and special needs.” Approximately 37 percent “strongly agree” with that statement. One-third (32 percent) disagree with that statement, and 19 percent “strongly disagree.”

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For most voters, an ESA proposal would not be a make or break issue. A majority (58 percent) said it would not make her/him more or less likely to vote for a political candidate who supports ESAs. However, if a voter has an opinion on this issue, he or she is more likely to vote for the pro-ESA candidate (19 percent more likely vs. 14 percent less likely).

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Oklahomans send different signals about how to fund preschool, a topic receiving considerable attention lately by policy wonks and public officials.

On the first of two questions, a plurality of voters (29 percent) indicated they would like to see an increase of funding public preschool providers directly. However, about 26 percent of respondents said they would equally favor that or a proposal establishing an ESA system for four-year-old children. An additional 17 percent would prefer structural reform – the ESA system – over simple funding increases.

The follow-up question asked to what extent respondents would favor or oppose a pilot ESA program for Oklahoma’s four-year-olds. Considering this proposal on its own merits, more than half of respondents (55 percent) said they would favor such a limited ESA program, compared to 32 percent saying they would oppose the preschool ESA system.

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The window looks as if it’s wide open for Oklahoma’s education reformers to change the funding mechanism for K-12 education (via ESAs).

First, certain questions in our poll pick up voters’ desires for changing the status quo and having more access to private schools.

  • 56 percent believe Oklahoma’s K-12 education system is on the “wrong track”; 65 percent of school parents gave this response.
  • 58 percent rated the state’s public school system “fair” or “poor”; 63 percent of school parents gave this response.
  • Voters are much more likely to grade local private schools A or B (74 percent) compared to giving those grades to local public schools (45 percent).
  • When asked for a preferred school type, nearly equal proportions of voters would choose a regular public school (39 percent) or a private school (37 percent). The disconnect is stark when juxtaposing those responses against Oklahoma’s actual enrollment patterns (94 percent public school and 4 percent private school).

Second, Oklahomans are more likely to favor – rather than oppose – education reforms such as school vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and charter schools. Collectively, these responses provide a hospitable climate for an ESA proposal.

Click “Oklahoma K-12 & School Choice Survey” to read the full report.