Education , Culture & the Family
Ray Carter | March 30, 2023
Oklahoma parents, students rally for school choice
Hundreds of parents and students urged lawmakers to enact robust school-choice policies this year that will allow Oklahoma families to more easily access private schools and homeschooling, speaking out at a Capitol rally on Thursday.
“Every parent has dreams for their child’s future,” said Blessing Omeke, a mother of three. “And God puts a natural desire in every parent for our children to succeed.”
“I don’t even begin to understand what your job is like,” said Laura Robinson, whose nine-year-old son Joshua has special needs, addressing legislators. “But please, please try and understand what our job is like. Because not just the special-needs kids like Josh are being left behind.”
“I believe that generational chains will break in Oklahoma as we improve our education system and as we give power back to families and parents who have the wisdom and the ability to choose what’s right for their children,” said First Lady Sarah Stitt.
Rallygoers urged support for House Bill 1935, which creates the “Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act.” The legislation has received overwhelming support in both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature, passing the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 75-25 vote and the Oklahoma Senate on a 40-7 vote. But each chamber has advanced a different version, meaning a compromise must now be worked out.
The legislation, as passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives, would provide a refundable tax credit of $5,000 per student for parents sending children to private schools and $2,500 per child for those who homeschool.
The version passed by the Senate, which advanced the same day as the rally, increased the tax credit to $7,500 per child for private school, but reduced the credit for homeschoolers to $1,000 per family. The Senate version also capped the credit to families with total adjusted gross income below $250,000.
Speakers noted every child is different and said families should be given greater ability to select from an array of options that includes private schools, not just a ZIP-code-assigned public school.
Philip Abode, executive director of Crossover Preparatory Academy in north Tulsa, noted that public schools in north Tulsa have struggled to produce college-ready graduates for years. Crossover Preparatory was created to fill that gap, and the mostly working-class students who attend Crossover are all on 100-percent scholarships.
“In our organization, we always say that God does the heavy lifting, because we’ve seen him do miracle after miracle to provide for our school,” Abode said. “But the thing is it shouldn’t take miracles for good schools to exist in our community. And we really need our legislators to work together to be able to provide access to whatever school our parents think is the best school for their child.”
If robust school choice is enacted, he predicted more schools will be launched.
“If our legislators can come together and work together for parent choice, it will make it easier for schools like Crossover Prep to exist in under-resourced communities throughout the state,” Abode said.
Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South in Oklahoma City, the state’s largest brick-and-mortar charter school, noted demand for school choice is significant. Santa Fe South serves roughly 4,000 students but has a waiting list of nearly 1,000.
“We need to see the power of the public institution shifted back to the public,” Brewster said.
In many instances, parents said local public schools do not adequately serve children, but those same children thrive and succeed elsewhere, including in private schools. Financial limits hold families back from accessing those options, but the tax-credit program would open those doors for many.
Robinson’s son was in Tulsa Public Schools, which shut down for months when COVID hit. At that point, Tulsa schools expected her son to be educated via eight Zoom calls a day. Robinson said that did not work for Joshua, who is nonverbal and nonmobile.
“We are the parents,” Robinson said. “We do need to have that choice that our tax dollars go where we feel best for our children.”
In West Africa, where her family previously lived, Omeke recalled that schools were “so poor they do not even have a roof over their head.” When the family moved to the United States, she was “most curious to find out how was the education here.”
Her oldest daughter attended a public school in Oklahoma from kindergarten to second grade, at which point Omeke noticed her daughter “was declining.”
“I became concerned, so I started asking questions,” Omeke said. “I asked about the curriculum that was being taught. I made myself available for meetings with her teachers. They told me she was fine. But I know my daughter, and I know she could be learning more and achieving more. Their expectations were too low for me.”
Omeke found a private school that served her daughter better, but she “knew that financially we would not be able to pay for it.” Fortunately, her daughter was able to attend thanks to a scholarship program.
“My message to the representatives and senators in this building is this: Every parent deserves to have the opportunity to send their child to the best school they like, like I did,” Omeke said. “Parents in Oklahoma need education freedom now.”
Rev. Wade Moore, founder and dean of the Urban Prep Academy in Wichita, Kansas, recalled his own experience when describing the need for school choice.
“I said, ‘I want to go to college,’” Moore recalled. “And my high-school counselor, he looked at me, Governor [Stitt], and he said, ‘Kids like you don’t go to college.’”
Moore said that comment, made when he was 16, has “stayed” with him ever since.
“I opened up that Urban Prep Academy to make sure that no child under my watch will ever hear, ‘Kids like you don’t go to college,’” Moore said.
Several policymakers attended the rally and vowed to fight for parents.
“In Oklahoma, one of the things that we’ve seen is that we continue to fall in the bottom of our educational-outcome statistics,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters. “And we feel that that is absolutely not what we want for our kids. And we know that the way to do this is to ensure that every child, every unique individual, has the best educational opportunity imaginable for them—and that means full parent choice.”
“We have listened to what parents have said, and we have worked diligently to make sure that not just a few students were able to reap rewards from school-choice initiatives, but that all students would reap rewards,” said state Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said House lawmakers have sought to “help every student in the state of Oklahoma, support every parent in the state of Oklahoma, every teacher in the state of Oklahoma, and every school.”
“When I look back at the children that I raised—who I’m so very proud of—I got to make the education choices for them,” said McCall, a banker. “I was able to look at my children and consider what would be the best environment for their learning, and I got to make that choice. Every parent in this state deserves to be able to make that choice for their child.”
“Every child deserves a quality education that fits their unique needs, regardless of their ZIP code or their background,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt. “So to all the parents in Oklahoma whose child is stuck or not thriving or there’s something not happening at the school, that there’s a better option, I want you to hear me loud and clear: I will never stop fighting for you to give you that better option to put your kid and your child where it better fits their needs.”
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.