Ray Carter | May 19, 2023

Major school-choice bill headed to governor

Ray Carter

After months of wrangling, a major school-choice measure is now headed to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk and is expected to be signed into law.

Discussing the issue early Friday morning, before the Oklahoma House of Representatives released the bill, the governor hailed school choice expansion as one of the great accomplishments of the 2023 legislative session.

“The tax credit, the school-choice options, was very, very important to me,” Stitt said. “Getting that across the finish line, I think, is historic for Oklahomans. I think 20 years from now we’re going to look back on this budget for parents’ choice and say, ‘This was really, really good for a lot of parents across the state of Oklahoma.’”

A day earlier, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, also referenced school choice as an accomplishment.

“We made some historic investments in teachers and parents’ ability to take their kids where they needed to go for the best education,” Treat said.

House Bill 1934 creates the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act and provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition.

Families earning below $75,000 would qualify for a $7,500 tax credit. Those with incomes of $75,000 to $150,000 would get a $7,000 credit, while those with income between $150,000 and $225,000 would get a $6,500 credit. Those earning between $225,000 and $250,000 would get a $6,000 credit, and families earning more than $250,000 would get a $5,000 credit.

“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.” —House Speaker Charles McCall

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

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

The bill received strong support in both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature, passing the Oklahoma Senate on a 36-10 vote on April 27 and passing the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 61-31 vote on May 2, receiving bipartisan support in the House.

However, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, used a parliamentary maneuver to keep HB 1934 from advancing to the governor after it passed that chamber on May 2, making its release to the governor contingent upon passage of a separate public-school funding plan.

By Friday, May 19, both chambers of the Legislature had passed that plan, which provided $500 million in new funding to public schools through the state’s school funding formula and another additional $125 million to be distributed to schools through the Redbud School Grants Program, which augments funding at smaller schools with limited local property tax revenue.

Among other things, the $500 million in formula funding will cover the cost of new teacher pay raises of $3,000 to $6,000 apiece with the size of the increase rising with a teacher’s years of classroom experience.

After all bills associated with public-school funding had passed both chambers of the Legislature and were sent to the governor, McCall waived his “motion to reconsider” notice that had kept HB 1934 from advancing further, allowing the school-choice bill to proceed to the governor’s desk.

“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.

“At the same time, we’ve given parents, a.k.a. taxpayers, some control over their own income so they have more educational choices.” —State Rep. Mark McBride

“This package gives these teachers the largest pay raise in state history, showing them our confidence and appreciation for the job they do. It also appropriates historic amounts of funding to our classrooms, and ensures rural, suburban, and urban schools can thrive,” said House Appropriations & Budget Subcommittee on Education Chair Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore. “At the same time, we’ve given parents, a.k.a. taxpayers, some control over their own income so they have more educational choices.”

As Stitt noted, passage of HB 1934 is expected to fuel increased enrollment in Oklahoma private schools as the tax-credit program makes that option financially viable for many working-class families. The $5,000 to $7,500 tax credit will cover all or most of the tuition cost at most private schools in Oklahoma.

Reportedly, the Catholic Church is now considering efforts to reopen some rural private schools that closed in recent years. And many private schools are already in expansion mode following a sustained enrollment surge caused by the shutdown of public schools during COVID and growing parental dissatisfaction with educational content and outcomes.

In an announcement made the same day HB 1934 was sent to Stitt, although not explicitly tied to the tax-credit program, the Holy Family Cathedral, a part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, announced that it will purchase First Christian Church of Tulsa’s campus in downtown Tulsa to use for its new classical school, which has grown from 87 students to over 200 over the last three years.

The property, located at 913 South Boulder Ave. W., is a historic Greco-Roman church featuring a Byzantine-styled stained-glass dome with more than 85,000 square feet of facilities sitting on more than three acres.

“Holy Family Classical School is dedicated to a pursuit of truth, goodness, beauty, and unity within a liberal arts tradition, and this new campus will allow our students to flourish in the truth of Jesus Christ for years to come,” said Dr. Marcel Brown, head of school for the new classical school.

Tuition at Holy Family Classical School is currently $6,540 a year, far lower than the per-pupil expenditure in Oklahoma public schools.

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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