Budget & Tax , Education

Ray Carter | May 18, 2021

School choice clears Senate hurdle

Ray Carter

A significant school-choice measure has won overwhelming approval from the Oklahoma Senate and is now one vote away from Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk.

Senate Bill 1080 increases the size of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, which provides tax credits to those who donate to organizations that provide private-school scholarships.

“Other than affirming life, this may be the most important vote you take,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat told his fellow lawmakers. “This is an extremely important issue that will live well beyond your service.”

Under current law, the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program is limited to $3.5 million annually in tax credits for donations to organizations that provide private-school scholarships. SB 1080 would raise that figure to $25 million.

Under the program, at least 58 percent of private-school scholarship recipients must qualify for the federal free-and-reduced lunch program, ensuring the vast majority of students benefiting from the program are from working families.

The legislation also boosts a tax-credit program for private donations to public schools, raising that program’s cap from $1.5 million annually to $25 million. The legislation also makes all public schools eligible for the program for the first time and provides additional avenues for donors to support local public schools.

The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act has been described as life-changing and lifesaving. Its beneficiaries include students previously trapped in schools that produce poor academic outcomes, students attending “sober school” while recovering from addiction, children recovering from trauma and abuse, and homeless students.

By increasing school-choice opportunity, Treat said legislators could positively alter the life path of students and their families.

“This will absolutely change families for generations,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “I strongly encourage you to vote yes for our future, for our kids, for choice, for parents being in charge of their kids’ education. Don’t give in to the scare tactics. Change the trajectory of families’ lives.”

“This will absolutely change families for generations.” --Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City

Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, said the public-school side of the program can benefit rural schools with declining population.

“In many of the smaller schools that are losing some of their money through the formula because some of the kids are moving to the big cities, they struggle with funding,” Thompson said. “This is a direct avenue that they can get money into that public school.”

He also stressed that the private-school side of the program is helping many children with significant needs, referencing Positive Tomorrows, a private school in Oklahoma City dedicated to serving homeless children.

“It’s for the children,” Thompson said. “I toured a school that deals simply with homeless children. I’m not talking about the rich kids. I’m dealing with those that have no other place to go, where that they’re not in a public school for very long and then they just keep moving on.”

He said critics ignore the fact that the real impact on state finances comes from a failure to properly educate children, not from any short-time fiscal impact of a tax-credit program.

“If we do not educate those children, in the future they become tax-takers and not taxpayers,” Thompson said. “So for those that are worried about our taxpaying in the future, the better education we can give all the children of Oklahoma, the better it is for Oklahoma.”

Critics dismissed those comments and the real-life examples of student beneficiaries.

Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, said the scholarship program supports students “who may not need the help” and said the program involves “turning away tax revenue that could go to our public schools.”

“There are homeless children in our public schools every single day of every single year,” said Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City.

She said the legislation is designed for the benefit of wealthy individuals.

“This is about donors, plain and simple,” Hicks said. By incentivizing private donations to education, she said the bill “picks winners and losers, especially in our nonprofit world.”

But supporters said those arguments ignore the realities facing many Oklahoma families.

“The losers are children trapped in failing schools whose parents, because of poverty and the ZIP code in which they live, cannot afford an education for their child that they think would be better for their child,” said Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville. “This is about individual Oklahoma children.”

She noted the bill empowers parents and benefits public schools and said its passage would be a win for children with autism “who go to Paths to Independence in Bartlesville.”

“Families now come from all over the state of Oklahoma to access that education that, yes, is fairly exclusive and costs over $15,000 a year per child to appropriately educate those children on the autism spectrum,” Daniels said. “It’s a win-win for everybody. It’s all about kids. It’s not against anyone.”

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, said the amount of tax credits provided for the school-choice program is tiny as a part of the state budget, but the impact can be immense for families.

“We’re talking about $25 million,” Pugh said. “That’s 0.252 percent of all available revenue for this coming fiscal year to the state of Oklahoma that we’re going to put into a program that helps kids.”

SB 1080 passed the Senate on a 36-11 vote. The bill now proceeds to the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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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