Ray Carter | February 23, 2023

Oklahoma House passes school-choice legislation

Ray Carter

Members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives have approved an $800 million education package that includes a half-billion dollars in new funding for public schools and $300 million in refundable tax credits for families that choose to send a child to private school or homeschool.

“I view this as an investment in kids, and we’re trying to invest in all kids,” said state Rep. Rhonda Baker, a Yukon Republican who carried the bills on the House floor. “Parents have made it very clear to us that they’ve got to have choices about what’s best for their children.”

The education package was advanced through two bills with each bill containing provisions that prevent their taking effect without the enactment of the other.

House Bill 1935 creates the “Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act.” The legislation states, “It is the intent of the Legislature that parents, legal guardians, custodians, and others with legal authority over children in this state be able to choose educational services that meet the needs of their individual children. The Legislature affirms that parents and legal guardians are best suited to make choices to help children in this state reach their full potential and achieve a brighter future.”

The tax credit could be claimed beginning in the current tax year and would provide $5,000 per student for parents sending children to private schools and $2,500 for those who homeschool.

The tax credit would be refundable, meaning that if the amount of the credit is greater than a tax filer’s liability, the state would pay the difference to the parents.

The credit is available to any Oklahoma family with children.

To ensure that low-income families can take advantage of the tax credit, HB 1935 would allow families to file a request with the Oklahoma Tax Commission. If approved, the credit would be advanced to those families in two installments of up to $2,500 per semester.

Families of children with special needs who already qualify for the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program (LNH), which allows families to use state funding to pay for private-school tuition, would also be allowed to receive the tax credit in combination with an LNH scholarship.

Some opponents argued only the well-to-do would benefit from the tax credit, such as state Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, who called the tax credit a “coupon for the rich.”

But other opponents argued the opposite. State Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater, opposed the bill, noting that working-class families, whose tax liability is as limited as their income, would benefit because the tax credit is refundable.

“We’re talking about a tax credit that taxpayers can apply for on their taxes,” Ranson said. “If they do not owe the amount of money in taxes that meets the credit that they are eligible for, then they don’t have to pay taxes and they get a check. That check is not their money. It’s not a refund. It’s not taxes that they paid. It’s mine. It’s yours. It’s everyone in the state of Oklahoma’s taxes that have been paid.”

State Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, said his childhood experiences show that low-income families can and do pursue private education.

“I was that poor, ‘hypothetical kid’ that we’re all talking about,” Martinez said.

He said his local public school was a bad environment and his parents were desperate to change his life trajectory.

“My mom told me she would drive by a private school, every day, and she would cry—because she knew that the opportunity to get her only son into that school could save his life,” Martinez said. “And that wasn’t made up, because guess what? The friends around me, they were getting addicted to drugs. They were selling drugs. They were getting shot in the street. And so my mom was scared.”

His parents both worked multiple jobs to pay for him to attend a private school.

Martinez said HB 1935 would make private school viable and ease the burden facing many families like his own, whose children may otherwise face bleak futures without educational opportunity.

“Let’s give kids a chance to succeed,” Martinez said.

Opponents also argued the $5,000 tax credit would not cover the cost of private school, pointing to a handful of private schools that charge close to $20,000 in annual tuition.

But according to Private School Review, the average private school tuition in Oklahoma is $6,591 for elementary schools and $7,620 for high schools.

“In House District 29 and just around House District 29, there are three fairly small private schools, and all three of them their tuition is under $6,000,” said state Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow. “And so this does make it accessible to families.”

The $5,000 maximum per-pupil amount expended on the tax credit is also substantially less than what the state would spend educating those same students in traditional public schools. Based on enrollment totals and the 2022 school district expenditures reported through the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s Oklahoma Cost Accounting System, the per-student expenditure in Oklahoma public schools was $12,967, a figure that is expected to increase next year.

Some opponents suggested parents cannot be trusted to handle a school-choice tax credit.

“There are no provisions for people who provide education by other means to their children that we’re going to be able to check what they’re doing,” said state Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa. “There’s no wellness checks to prevent the outbreak of child abuse as we’ve seen so tragically in our past.”

State Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, pushed back on that claim.

“If you were listening online and you homeschool, I hope you heard that,” Echols said. “Parents, I don’t think you abuse your kids and I don’t think your kids belong to the state of Oklahoma. I think your kids belong to you.”

State Rep. Trey Caldwell, R-Lawton, noted the tax credit is paired with $500 million in increased K-12 public-school funding.

“These sister bills give us an opportunity to let every child in the state of Oklahoma win,” Caldwell said. “Not a single school in the state of Oklahoma, if these sister bills pass, will receive less money than they did today. Every single school in the state of Oklahoma will receive more in resources next year than they did last year.”

HB 1935 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 75-25 vote.

Shortly after passing HB 1935, House lawmakers also passed House Bill 2775, which designates $150 million in new funding to provide $2,500 across-the-board pay raises to teachers and provides another $300 million to boost per-pupil spending at public schools. Of that $300 million, the bill is designed to provide the largest increase in per-pupil funding to struggling rural districts with low student counts. Those small rural districts would receive around $100 million of the $300 million total, according to projections.

The bill also includes $50 million in funding for public schools with little local property tax base, building on the Redbud School Funding Act, which currently provides $38.5 million in grant funding to such schools.

HB 2775 passed on a 78-20 vote.

Both bills passed in the face of criticism from education groups that typically oppose reform.

The Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC) issued an action alert opposing both bills. PLAC officials opposed the school-choice opportunity provided by HB 1935 and dismissed the half-billion in new public-school funding provided in HB 2775 as insufficient, saying a larger teacher pay raise should have been provided.

Officials with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) voiced similar complaints. While calling the half-billion in new school funding “welcome,” the OSSBA dismissed that massive increase as insufficient, saying the $500 million “will not alleviate all of the existing concerns around competitively compensating educators; recruitment and retention; inflation; and the need for deeper investment in programs and services to meet student needs.”

On a recent podcast discussing the House Republican education plan, Oklahoma Education Association president Katherine Bishop reiterated the union’s opposition to school choice, noting that the OEA’s member-created legislative agenda includes opposition to school-choice tax credits like those contained in HB 1935.

“We do stand in opposition to any vouchers, ESA (education savings account), or tax credits,” Bishop said.

On that same podcast, Ivy Riggs, the associate executive director for the Center of Legislative and Political Organizing at the OEA, indicated that the union fears creation of school-choice options could prove popular and therefore impossible to repeal.

“Our concerns about vouchers all along have been once you fund them, you won’t want to defund them because you are disrupting kids’ education,” Riggs said.

But advocates for children praised the House action.

“The hard work that House Speaker Charles McCall, Common Education Chairwoman Rhonda Baker, and their leadership team put into this legislative effort shows they have listened and responded to the needs of parents across Oklahoma,” said American Federation for Children–Oklahoma (AFC-OK) Senior Advisor Jennifer Carter. “Today’s overwhelming passage of House Bill 1935 is a major step toward allowing every child to have access to a high-quality education and puts Oklahoma on the path to become a national leader in education freedom. Because every family in Oklahoma would qualify for a $5,000 per child education tax credit, this bill will put private school within reach for children across the state, including those from working-class backgrounds, and opens the door of opportunity to all.”

After both bills passed the House, Gov. Kevin Stitt, who campaigned in favor of school choice, voiced support for the tax credit.

“After many conversations with parents, students, teachers, and legislators, I am emboldened by the prospect of delivering real education reform through the Parental Choice Act,” Stitt said. “By providing families with the option of a 100-percent refundable tax credit of up to $5,000 per child, we are building a foundation for funding students, not systems, in the state of Oklahoma.

“Every child deserves a quality education that best fits their unique needs, regardless of economic status or background,” Stitt continued, “and I believe the Parental Choice Act will help make that a reality here in Oklahoma, unlocking our full potential and putting our state on a path to become Top Ten in education.”

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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