Oklahoma school-choice law offers families hope


Ray Carter | May 26, 2023

Oklahoma school-choice law offers families hope

Ray Carter

When Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a new law providing tax credits to help Oklahoma families cover the cost of private-school tuition, parents said it gave them far more than a tax benefit.

Instead, the new programs give Oklahoma families reason to hope for a brighter future for their children.

Emily McDonald, a mother of three children living in suburban Oklahoma City, said her youngest daughter will now be able to attend a private school after struggling in a traditional school setting.

“I’m a single mom. I’m a widowed mom of three,” McDonald said. “There’s no way I’d be able to pay for it.”

House Bill 1934, which Stitt signed during a May 25 ceremony, creates the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act. The new law provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition starting in January 2024, just a little over seven months from now.

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

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.

“I remind people all the time: School choice should not just be for the rich or those that can afford it,” Stitt said. “Now it’s available for every single family in the state of Oklahoma.”

Blessing Omeke, a mother of three who spoke in favor of the school-choice effort at a March rally, said the program will benefit her family and provide greater peace of mind regarding her children’s future.

“It’s just such an amazing thing for us, and we are glad that this bill is passed,” Omeke said. “It’s going to be very helpful.”

She praised Stitt for putting school choice front-and-center in his agenda.

“Bless God for the governor, for the wisdom He’s given to him that he’s a purposed and driven governor who just wants to get things going,” Omeke said. “He knows what is right and he pushes it. That’s a great thing for Oklahoma and for my family.”

Existing private schools are already discussing plans to expand.

“I’ve talked to Catholic Charities, for example, the Diocese,” Stitt said. “They’re going to be opening more schools now that they’ve closed over the last 30 years—in a lot of rural areas. They already have all of the facilities. They just needed a little help. And they know they can change the lives of 100, 200, 300 kids in those communities.”

Officials at Drexel Academy in north Tulsa are also considering how to handle the expected influx of students seeking a private-school education.

Most students who attend Drexel Academy come from families living near the poverty level. Currently, student families pay tuition based on a sliding scale tied to income. Pastor Tim Newton, president of Drexel Academy, said most students pay $50 to $100 per month. The remainder comes from private donations and through funds raised through the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program, which provides tax breaks to individuals who donate to scholarship-granting organizations.

He said creation of HB 1934’s school-choice tax credit is “going to create a lot of access to our families” and “allow us to expand the school.”

Newton said Drexel Academy currently serves 105 students from pre-K to 5th grade but had a waiting list of nearly 200 children this year.

Drexel Academy combines small classes with longer school days and longer school years. The results that approach generates are in stark contrast to the alternative available to Drexel’s students.

“We see 90 percent proficiency rate with our boys and girls,” Newton said. “That doesn’t exist in our community.”

Most Drexel students would otherwise be in the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) district. In the 2020-2021 school year, just 9 percent of TPS students in all grades and subjects were proficient on state tests, and just 14 percent were proficient pre-COVID.

Parents from Drexel Academy attended the March rally in support of the school-choice tax credit.

“They are aware of it, and they are really excited about it,” Newton said. “When we announced it to them just yesterday at our Kindergarten graduation, they were like, ‘This is going to be amazing.’”

Rural private school officials believe the school-choice program will be just as impactful in their communities as in the state’s urban core.

In a March interview when details of the school-choice tax-credit plan were still in flux, Leland Streck, elementary-and-middle school administrator at Hillsdale Christian School in rural Garfield County, said the program would be a “huge help” to many local families.

“I think it will be a deal-changer,” Streck said.

Hillsdale Christian School’s tuition is $5,200 for high school, $4,200 for junior high, and $3,900 for elementary school.

An early version of the school-choice tax credit topped out at $5,000 per child. That figure was later increased to as much as $7,500 based on income. But Streck noted even a smaller figure could make a huge difference for working-class families.

“When my kids were in school, if you gave me $2,500, that’s $200 a month. That makes a difference in a family,” Streck said. “And if it ends up being $5,000, now you’re talking about $400 a month that they can put into their education. At our tuition, that just about pays it for them. That matters, because they’re sacrificing to keep their kids here. I believe it will free up, and I think it will open up, doors for other people that have been thinking about it, but they just can’t afford it.”

Omeke said the school-choice program’s impact will not be limited to those who cheered its passage in 2023.

“It’s something that is not just for this generation,” she said.

Stitt said the school-choice program, combined with record funding for traditional public schools, may become a strong selling point to people nationwide looking for a new start.

“I think it’s going to be a recruitment tool, that people are going to be moving here from Dallas and Washington, D.C.,” Stitt said. “We’re already top 10 in migration, people moving to the great state of Oklahoma. That’s only going to continue thanks to the people in this room, the leadership of the House and the Senate, getting this great bill across the finish line.”

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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