School-choice program improvements easily advance


Ray Carter | March 14, 2024

School-choice program improvements easily advance

Ray Carter

Bills making the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax program easier for families to access, and weeding out potential abuse of the program, have easily advanced from both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature.

But the measures drew criticism from some Democrats who objected to language that would prevent families from using the school-choice tax credit to pay back taxes rather than pay for a child’s education.

The Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition with the largest credits going to families with the lowest incomes.

The program has proven wildly popular with applications filed for more than 30,000 children statewide. The majority of beneficiaries have come from low-income and middle-class families, which are given priority under the program.

Roughly 7,900 children from families earning $75,000 or less have received the tax credit so far, while 8,800 children from families with incomes between $75,001 and $150,000 have been approved. Beneficiaries have come from all parts of Oklahoma, including rural areas.

However, some problems have been identified in the program and lawmakers are working to address those issues this year.

House Bill 3388 and Senate Bill 1477, both authored by House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, each prevent school-choice credits from being treated as taxable income by the state, ensuring that low-income families are not penalized with higher taxes if their children access the program.

The bills also align the credit with the school year rather than the calendar year.

Both measures also contain language that would allow homeless children to use the credit to attend a private school that serves those families.

And the measures both prohibit the Oklahoma Tax Commission from using the credit to pay off a parent's back taxes rather than fund a children’s education.

That last provision drew objections from one Senate Democrat.

State Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, suggested that children should be barred from accessing private education through the program if a parent owes back taxes or has an unpaid bill at a state hospital.

But Treat noted that under SB 1477 access to the school-choice program would mirror the rules used for access to the public-school system.

“Just like a child who is in public school, we would not deny them access—a child—to getting a quality education in a public school,” Treat said. “If their parents were in arrears on their taxes, we would not seek to punish the children of adults who were not in compliance.”

Oklahoma public-school district expenditures in 2023 totaled $9,538,453,992 when student enrollment was 701,066, meaning the per-student expenditure was $13,605 that year, the most recent for which full data is available.

In contrast, the maximum benefit from the school-choice tax credit is $7,500 for families with annual incomes below $75,000.

For parents who have not paid their taxes, the financial benefit reaped by sending their children to public school exceeds the benefit generated by the school-choice tax credit, Treat noted.

“If I send my kids to Deer Creek public schools or any other public school and I’m not paying taxes, I am getting a benefit from taxpayers which I am not paying in,” Treat said.

Had Kirt succeeded in defeating the bill, it would have allowed the tax-credit program to be misused to cover unpaid taxes rather than a child’s education.

Notably, at least one House Democrat voted for HB 3388 because it would prevent misuse of school-choice tax credits and taxpayer funds.

During floor activity, state Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, asked if HB 3388 “makes it impossible to use tax dollars to pay back taxes?”

State Rep. Jon Echols, an Oklahoma City Republican who carried the bill on the floor, answered in the affirmative. Provenzano was among the Democrats who then voted in favor of HB 3388.

In the Senate, supporters also stressed the legislation would prevent misuse of the program.

During questions, state Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, noted that SB 1477 was “fixing the loophole so that we’re not paying for child support or back taxes,” but ensuring that taxpayer money “is actually going to go” to a child’s education.

One opponent objected to providing aid to homeless children.

State Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, objected to a provision of the bill that allows homeless children to benefit from the program, declaring it would “expand the tax credit, make it bigger” — even though legislative intent has always been for all families to be eligible for the program.

Treat said the proposed changes simply make the program viable for families served by private schools that exclusively serve homeless children since those schools “inherently” cannot charge tuition to the families they serve.

“This allows money to go towards homeless children getting a quality education,” Treat said.

Dossett suggested private schools should charge tuition to the families or caretakers of homeless children.

“What’s prohibiting them from charging tuition now?” Dossett asked.

“The inability of the parents to pay,” Treat responded. “They are homeless.”

HB 3388 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives with bipartisan support on a 79-16 vote. SB 1477 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 38-6 vote. Each bill will now proceed to the opposite chamber.

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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