Oklahoma enacts universal school choice

May 24, 2023

Brandon Dutcher

As part of a compromise plan involving vastly increased spending on public education, Oklahoma’s political leaders have enacted universal school choice.

House Bill 1934, which will be signed into law tomorrow by Gov. Kevin Stitt, creates a refundable income-tax credit for parents who incur private-school tuition expenses or homeschool expenses.1 Student eligibility is universal, meaning it extends to any Oklahoma resident who is “eligible to enroll in a public school in this state.” Oklahoma is the eighth state to enact universal or near-universal publicly funded school choice in the last two years.2

If this school-choice framework can be “preserved and deepened,” says longtime Oklahoma City University law professor Andrew Spiropoulos, it represents “one of the most significant social policy achievements in [Oklahoma] history.”

Success has a thousand fathers, of course, and each one deserves great credit for this policy victory. But this particular success also has one proud grandfather, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

OCPA, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, has long made the case for educational freedom. Regardless of the mechanism—we’ve argued for vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts—the goal has remained the same: Let’s empower all parents to choose the best educational options for their children.

Alas, for many years, enacting school choice was not within the Overton Window of political possibility. Not even close. Think back to OCPA’s early years and try to imagine Senate leader Stratton Taylor and House Speaker Glen Johnson sending a private-school choice bill to Gov. David Walters.

Nevertheless, our fledgling think tank persisted. Our friend Larry Reed, then-president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (and Joe Overton’s boss), even traveled from Michigan to Oklahoma to consult with our board and staff. We discussed how think tanks can shape public opinion and thus influence public policy.

Vouchers, Tax Credits, and Education Savings Accounts

Educational choice has long been one of our signature issues. (When Mid-Del superintendent Rick Cobb made reference to “school choice kingpin Brandon Dutcher,” I cheerfully added it to my bio.) Year after year—in innumerable articles, policy papers, media hits, presentations to civic groups, and more—OCPA trustees, staffers, and research fellows have argued for parental choice in education. A few examples will have to suffice.

‘Vouchers in Disguise’

Some Oklahomans have asked, is this new school-choice program a tax credit or is it a government subsidy?

In one sense, it doesn’t matter what you call it—as you can see, OCPA favors all of the above—but in truth a refundable tax credit is a hybrid of education tax credits and vouchers. “The primary legal distinction between tax credits and vouchers is that vouchers are government funds and tax credits are a taxpayer’s own money,” Adam B. Schaeffer of the Cato Institute once explained. “When a tax credit is made refundable, this distinction is eliminated.” That’s because parents receive a check (or a direct deposit) from the government when the tax-credit amount exceeds their tax bill.

“While the tax credits themselves do not constitute public funds,” adds Heritage Foundation scholar Jason Bedrick, “the ‘refundable’ credits are a public subsidy.” Indeed, it appears these public subsidies may be deposited into Oklahoma parents’ bank accounts in up-front installment payments. As Bloomberg journalist Steven Dennis has noted, “Prefunded refundable tax credit is a euphemism for voucher.” Many on the left4 and right5 have made similar observations.

Thus I had to agree when one Capitol insider wryly told me, “Our voucher identifies as a tax credit.” Considering that it was educators’ woke insanity that did so much to help move the Overton Window on school choice, the quip is perfect.

‘Funding Students, Not Systems’

In sum, Oklahoma’s political leaders, in a compromise plan which includes hefty spending hikes for public schools, have enacted universal school choice. Is there more work to be done? Yes. Eliminate the cap on the total amount of tax credits, for starters.6 But that’s a project for another day. Today we give thanks that, as Gov. Stitt put it, “we are building a foundation for funding students, not systems, in the state of Oklahoma.”

And to think just a few short months ago Oklahoma parents were hoping for a program in which the government would deposit money into their education savings accounts. Instead, it turns out the government will deposit money into their checking accounts. Parents were hoping for a per-child amount of at least $3,850; instead, it will be up to $7,500.

Understandably, many school-choice opponents are bewildered. “We don’t see the House Republicans’ education plan as a compromise,” the Stillwater News Press observed when the first round of legislation advanced in February. “It’s more like simply caving in to the whims of the wealthy school choice lobby.”

I am reminded of Harold Price, a successful businessman in my hometown of Bartlesville who asked the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a three-story headquarters building for his pipeline company. The headstrong Wright agreed to do it but suggested a 10-story tower instead. In the end, Price recalled, “we finally compromised on 19 floors.”

That’s the kind of compromise I can get behind. Universal school choice in Oklahoma. My, how the Overton Window has moved.