Budget & Tax , Education

Ray Carter | May 17, 2021

School-choice measure clears budget committees

Ray Carter

Legislation to significantly increase the size of a state school-choice program that helps children attend private schools has easily advanced from budget committees in both the House and Senate.

“This is an awesome opportunity today to change a lot of kids’ lives,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

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

Under current law, the 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.

It 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.

Democratic lawmakers in both chambers questioned the need to boost the program.

“What’s the need to raise this?” asked Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City. “How close to the existing cap were we?”

“We have been hitting the existing cap on the private side,” said Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, who noted private schools like Positive Tomorrows, which serves homeless children, have been among those seeking an increase in the program.

Echols said the public-school part of the program has not faced the same challenge since fewer people choose to donate.

“On the public-school side, we’re never anywhere close to the cap,” Echols said. “We’ve never even touched it.”

However, he said changes included in SB 1080 would make the public-school part of the program more attractive to donors. SB 1080 would allow donations directly to a school district for the first time, he noted.

A similar conversation occurred in Senate committee.

“Why are we taking this from such a small amount to such a big amount in a single year?” asked Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso.

“We have made historic investments, monumental investments in public education,” Treat said. “This cap has stayed the same since 2011.”

According to the Oklahoma House Republican caucus, state appropriations for public schools will have surged from $2.4 billion in 2018 to $3.2 billion once this year’s budget is approved.

SB 1080 passed the Senate portion of the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget on a 16-5 vote. It passed the House portion of the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget on a 28-7 vote.

SB 1080 will next be heard on the floor of the Oklahoma Senate.

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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