Ray Carter | June 20, 2023

2023 legislative session dominated by education

Ray Carter

To a greater degree than in most years, the 2023 session of the Oklahoma Legislature was dominated by one issue.

“Education, education, education was the focus for me this year,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

The session began in February with Gov. Kevin Stitt calling on lawmakers to approve an Education Savings Account program for all students, saying, “Every child deserves a quality education that fits their unique needs, regardless of economic status, or background. Let’s fund students, not systems.”

Before the end of February, the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to provide school choice to all families, but did so through creation of a tax credit for those who send their children to private school rather than the ESA program suggested by the governor.

That led to a session-long back-and-forth between the House and Senate on details of an education plan, including major school choice. Among other things, the Senate pushed to raise the maximum tax credit to $7,500 for working-class families.

By May, lawmakers reached an agreement to approve the school-choice effort, placing Oklahoma among the top states in the nation for educational opportunity, while also providing significant pay raises to public-school teachers and record funding for public schools.

At the bill signing for House Bill 1934, which creates the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act, Stitt said, “I remind people all the time: School choice should not just be for the rich or those that can afford it. Now it’s available for every single family in the state of Oklahoma.”

Treat said education measures, including school choice, are the top accomplishments of this year’s session.

“We have historic investments in teachers and classrooms and in parents being able to actually educate their kids at the institution or institutions they think best fit the needs of their children,” Treat said. “I think it was a huge win all around. We’ve got to stop having this conversation, ‘Is it in a private setting; is it in a public setting?’ What’s best for the kid? And this year we put aside those things that divide us and said, ‘Let’s just invest in kids.’ And we did so both on the public side and on the private side. I’m very proud of that work.”

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, also hailed the passage of this year’s education plan.

“With the implementation of this year’s education plan, the Legislature will have invested more funding into public education in the past five years than in the previous 27 years combined,” McCall said. “I’m proud of the work we have done to provide more resources and flexibility to every student, every parent, every teacher and every school district in the state.”

The Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition starting in January 2024, roughly seven months from now. The largest tax credits go to families with income below $75,000, and then taper down to a $5,000 credit as family income increases.

Families who choose to homeschool qualify for a tax credit equal to $1,000 per child under the plan.

In 2024, the private-school tax-credit program will be capped at $150 million. In 2025, the cap will increase to $200 million and in 2026 the cap rises to $250 million.

The tax credits will cover all or most of the cost of tuition at nearly all Oklahoma private schools.

In addition to the school-choice measure, lawmakers also voted to devote $625 million in increased funding to public education. Of that total, $500 million will go through the state’s education funding formula, including six weeks of paid maternity leave and longevity-based pay raises ranging from a $3,000 increase for teachers with 0-4 years’ experience to $6,000 for teachers employed 15 years or more.

The plan also provides an additional $10 million for a three-year literacy program to employ a literacy instructional team to support school districts; $125 million to the Redbud Fund, largely benefiting rural schools that don’t have the same ad valorem tax collection as other districts; and an additional $150 million for a three-year pilot program for school safety and security.

Missed opportunities and bad policy choices also occurred

While the session ended with a generationally historic school-choice plan, other measures fell by the wayside.

In his State of the State address in February, Stitt called for cutting Oklahoma’s personal income tax rate from 4.75 percent to 3.99 percent. But at the end of May, no major tax-cut measure was enacted.

Lawmakers instead voted to eliminate the franchise tax on businesses and eliminate the ‘marriage tax’ that imposed a higher rate on couples filing jointly than those filing separately. The latter change will save couples around $14.7 million annually.

In contrast, while lawmakers did not advance significant tax cuts, they did vote to provide hundreds of millions in subsidies to a handful of businesses considering Oklahoma as a new location for green energy products, such as electric cars and solar panels.

House Bill 1038X provided $145 million to subsidize one project, while Senate Bill 1176 dealt with nearly $700 million set aside last year for business subsidies, and Senate Bill 1179 provided another $180 million for subsidies with that money coming from state savings.

Even in education, which saw enactment of major policies this year, lawmakers shelved other significant, although more modest, reforms.

The Senate voted to streamline the process to make it easier for children to qualify for the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program and to also expand the program to homeless children. The LNH program, which was created in 2010, allows students to use state tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition. It currently serves children with special needs who have an individualized education program (IEP), adoptive children and foster children.

But the effort to simplify admission and better serve homeless children was not granted a hearing in the House Common Education Committee, which is chaired by state Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon.

Legislation to shift school-board elections to the November ballot, which would dramatically increase voter participation in those races, also passed out of the Senate but not the House. It also died without a hearing in the House Common Education Committee.

In the House, a measure to create a state transparency portal—where parents can easily review public-school textbooks, library books, co-curricular content and materials, and content from third-party learning applications—was killed after Democrats predicted “chaos” would ensue from parents having access to those materials.

Seventeen Republicans joined Democrats to kill the bill after state Rep. Regina Goodwin said the bill might deter Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs in K-12 schools.

“DEI is in deity,” said Goodwin, D-Tulsa. “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is God.”

HB 2077 failed the House Appropriations and Budget Committee on an 8-24 vote.

An effort was also made to weaken existing free-speech protections in Oklahoma law.

A “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” commonly referred to as a SLAPP lawsuit, is typically filed to drain the financial resources of individuals and groups engaged in free-speech activity. Those filing the lawsuits often allege defamation and seldom have a realistic expectation of a court victory but use lengthy court proceedings to cause financial harm to public-policy opponents and deter them from engaging in public debate.

Oklahoma and a majority of U.S. states have “anti-SLAPP” laws that impose significant penalties on individuals or groups that file these types of harassment lawsuits.

Under the Oklahoma Citizens Protection Act, the state’s anti-SLAPP law, a defendant sued for defamation who wins a motion to dismiss by asserting a First Amendment privilege recovers costs and attorney fees from the entity that filed the harassment lawsuit—and the law requires that the party that filed the harassment lawsuit must pay a sanction “sufficient to deter” similar legal harassment in the future.

House Bill 1236 removed the requirement for courts to impose those penalties.

However, Stitt vetoed the bill, writing that the legislation “would undermine the Act’s purpose, ensuring a greater frequency of frivolous lawsuits against Oklahomans exercising free speech.”

When a veto override was attempted in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, a majority of lawmakers voted to instead sustain Stitt’s veto, and the override effort failed on a 36-61 vote.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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