Education , Culture & the Family
Ray Carter | April 3, 2023
Sarah Stitt: School choice can break cycles of dysfunction
As a child, Oklahoma First Lady Sarah Stitt grew up in a household with parents who struggled with mental illness and addiction, creating a home life that was a “traumatic environment a lot of times.”
“Every day, I look at my life and think it’s a miracle that I’m in the place that I am, and it wasn’t because of my upbringing,” Stitt said. “Because I shouldn’t be here. I should be a statistic.”
However, Stitt said the lessons she reaped from her upbringing include the importance of education and empowering families with school choice.
“Education is opportunity,” Stitt said. “And we know that the statistics show that education is a huge generational-cycle breaker. It’s a way where children are able to step out of a future that maybe is uncertain or poor.”
Parents, even those struggling with addiction and poverty, want better for their children and will seek it out, Stitt noted. And that’s not an abstract concept to the state’s first lady.
Because her family lived in Tulsa, the ZIP-code-assigned public school Stitt and her siblings would have attended was not known for either education or a good environment.
“My parents did not want to send us to school there out of fear for our safety or whatever the issues were,” Stitt said. “So we just didn’t go to school.”
Instead, her parents attempted to homeschool Stitt and her siblings, although she said her home instruction was not consistent. Her childhood memories include going with her mother to school book sales “trying to collect textbooks in order to teach us at home,” but she said homeschooling “was a struggle” for the family.
She said her parents would have loved to send their children to a small private school, but their financial reality did not allow it.
“Even though there are a lot of amazing private schools that aren’t a huge amount of money, they had zero resources,” Stitt said. “And they were living a life, and in an environment, where it was a shoestring budget, and could you pay your electricity bill, did you have enough money to buy milk. So that was out of the question.”
The only exception occurred during a period of about six months when Stitt was a child. At that time, she was able to attend a private school—because it was tuition free, the only option her parents could afford.
“The only memories that I have of a normal education was a small period of time, and I think it was about a semester or a little bit more, at a small, private Christian school where I actually sat at a desk, and was actually measured in my academic growth,” Stitt said. “But that school shut down.”
That brief period was the “first time” in her life Stitt experienced “normal activity,” she said.
Today, Stitt is among those advocating for giving parents greater school choice, in part, to help children whose lives today resemble her own childhood.
Because she has been open in discussing her upbringing and background, the first lady is often contacted by Oklahomans who face similar struggles today.
“The families that contact me, they may not have the perfect life, but what they all have in common is they want a bright hope, a future, for their children,” Stitt said. “And they also want their children to break free from their own struggles.”
The major school-choice bill advanced this year, House Bill 1935, creates the “Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Program.” The legislation has passed both the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Oklahoma Senate in slightly different versions.
The House version 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 Senate version would provide a tax credit of $7,500 per child for private school and $1,000 per family for homeschoolers with the credit available to families with total adjusted gross income below $250,000.
Opponents of school choice have argued parents from lower-income families, particularly those where various forms of dysfunction are present, lack either the sophistication or the will to navigate the process of finding private schools that would serve their children, even if they have a voucher or refundable tax credit that makes enrollment financially possible.
Stitt said policymakers shouldn’t try to pick and choose family winners based on that theory, and notes reality is often different from the picture painted by school-choice opponents.
“Had someone come back in and said, ‘Hey, this school closed down, but we’ll give your children an opportunity to go over here,’ my parents would have jumped on it,” Stitt said. “Because as difficult as their life was, they knew that they wanted a safe environment and they wanted an education for us. They just couldn’t figure out how to make it happen with the resources that were available to them.”
And, she noted, the alternative is to basically stick with the status quo.
“Every legislative session, every year or two, there’s a huge issue with education and a push to try to make changes,” Stitt said. “But we know what we’ve done in the past has made very little impact on the future for our children. But this [school choice] is one of the most important keys. If we want Oklahoma to have a healthy future and a hope for all Oklahomans, we have to change our educational foundation and the way we look at education.”
The opportunity to attend a quality school environment positively impacts children even from emotionally fragile home lives, she noted.
“I think it just opens your horizons,” Stitt said. “For one, you are getting mentorship, you are getting impact, from healthy adult relationships. But also it opens your eyes to what could be for you. It gives you a hope. It gives you a sense that there is a future.”
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.