Ray Carter | February 15, 2022

Parent empowerment bill wins committee approval

Ray Carter

Legislation that would empower parents to choose from a greater range of education options for their children has advanced from a state Senate committee.

Senate Bill 1647, by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, would create the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program. Under the program, any student eligible to enroll in a public school would be eligible for an OEA, which could be used to pay for a range of education services, including private-school tuition. Money deposited into the account comes from the per-pupil allotment of state funding already dedicated for the education of a child.

Treat said the base funding provided will be $3,619 per child, although some students will receive more based on a variety of factors already included in the state formula used to determine per-pupil funding.

While opponents suggested the state should impose new regulations on private schools, Treat said the bill already provides a higher level of accountability.

“The ultimate accountability for anything is you moving your dollars away,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “And so parents will keep these educational institutions more honest than any government intervention could. So I believe it’s the ultimate in accountability. If you’re providing a service that meets the needs of that student, the parent will continue to utilize your service. If you are underperforming, not meeting expectations and/or doing something that the parent finds egregious, they can move those dollars elsewhere.”

Polling has shown strong statewide support for school-choice programs like Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts, particularly among parents of school-age children.

But some opponents dismissed the idea that parents can be trusted to judge the quality of a child’s education.

“So the parent will take the money, and the parent will decide if the money is being used properly—and that will be our system of accountability for these education service providers?” said Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa.

The bill requires random auditing of 10 percent of accounts each year to ensure money is spent on education needs and not diverted to other uses.

Opponents also dismissed the idea that private-sector entities would provide a quality education.

Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, said Oklahoma doesn’t spend enough money on public schools and claimed SB 1647 would lead to low-quality “strip mall, pop-up shops that have education services to render.”

Although money deposited into an OEA will come from tax dollars already allocated for a child’s education, Hicks also said the OEA program would represent a “government handout” if the money is used for education outside a traditional public school.

Supporters noted the slapdash outcomes predicted by opponents have not occurred elsewhere in government when private-sector entities are involved.

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, noted taxpayer funds routinely go to private-sector entities, including in education, and few people object. He noted no one has filed legislation to bar Catholic hospitals from receiving Medicaid funds, for example.

“Tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, flow out of the state coffers every year to private entities,” Pugh said. “But now we’ve lumped in parents as a private entity and really we’ve singled them out. We’ve said, ‘But we don’t like that private entity. We don’t want a parent to receive public dollars.’ And the mental gymnastics that we have to get to in our brain to make those two things connect just don’t make any sense to me. And I think it’s important that we call out the hypocrisy.”

Treat said many Oklahoma public schools do a good job but that state lawmakers should not ignore the needs of families where districts are not excelling, referencing a parable from the Bible.

“I think mediocrity has far too often in the state of Oklahoma been accepted,” Treat said. “I think some excel. I think there are some (school districts) that are tremendous. Many, actually, that are tremendous. But even if one school out of the 520-plus school districts that we have is failing our kids, we have an example. You leave the 99 to save the one. And I am trying to make sure that we don’t abandon that one.”

Other supporters noted growing demand among Oklahoma parents for education choice, especially in light of how some districts have handled COVID challenges.

“Many parents in my district and across the state are feeling frustrated at the lack of options available to them to educate their children, especially in the wake of school closings and mask mandates from the COVID pandemic,” said Sen. Joe Newhouse, R-Tulsa. “Many of these parents have been ignored by school administrators and school boards. I feel that parents, and not antiquated bureaucratic systems, should be empowered to educate their children.”

“I believe in parent empowerment and that parents are the final word on a child’s life, including their education,” said Sen. Jake Merrick, R-Yukon.

“The emails that you get from time to time use phrases like ‘public schools will be hurt,’” said Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore. “That sends a message to me. When I read many, many emails, it talks about the public school being hurt. Why is that same person not putting first that students are being hurt? Because that’s what moms and dads are seeing. Moms and dads see that first. The kid should be the priority. The student should be the priority, not the system that has been long in existence.”

Quinn noted public support for proposals like the Oklahoma Empowerment Account Program is surging and warned lawmakers they cannot duck the issue.

“Listen to the moms and dads. This is not going away,” Quinn said. “Whether it passes today or whether it doesn’t pass today, this is not any different than big issues that have been fought for years and years in this body. And when the citizens of Oklahoma, when the parents and the students of Oklahoma make up their mind that they want a different choice, it will happen. Today or tomorrow or next year, it’s going to happen.”

“Every kid, every family, has dignity and worth, and they deserve the best opportunity,” Treat said. “And our state is short-selling them if we don’t give them more opportunities.”

SB 1647 passed out of the Senate Education Committee on an 8-7 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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