School-choice program’s launch benefiting families

Ray Carter | December 8, 2023

After technical glitches delayed the launch of Oklahoma’s new school-choice tax credit program for several days, the Oklahoma Tax Commission began taking applications for the credit on Dec. 6.

While the Oklahoma Tax Commission has not yet released figures, Gov. Kevin Stitt reported that more than 30,000 submissions were received within the first 90 minutes of launch (although some duplication of submissions may have occurred due to technical challenges).

School leaders say the program is opening doors for Oklahomans who previously could not afford private school.

“It is huge,” said Renae Haymaker, elementary administrator for Hillsdale Christian School in rural northwest Oklahoma. “I was helping one family yesterday that they only have the mom and she has six kids. She’s only got three of them out here right now. She’s hoping that eventually the other ones will get to come, but she didn’t know how in the world she would ever afford it.”

The mother’s income cannot cover tuition for all her children, Haymaker said, but the tax-credit program could now allow all of them to attend Hillsdale.

“I helped her apply yesterday,” Haymaker said, “and she was so excited.”

House Bill 1934, passed by the Oklahoma Legislature and signed into law by Stitt at a May 25 ceremony, created the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act. The new law provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition starting in January 2024.

Families earning up to $75,000 can receive a $7,500 per-child refundable tax credit per school year with the credit provided in two semester installments, while those earning $75,001 to $150,000 get a credit of $7,000 per child.

The tax credit then gradually declines as income increases with the final tier providing a $5,000 credit for those earning $250,001 or more.

(Families who choose to homeschool qualify for a tax credit equal to $1,000 per child under the program.)

In 2024, the program is capped at $150 million in tax credits. In 2025, the cap will increase to $200 million and in 2026 the cap rises to $250 million.

The $150 million cap is expected to cover between 20,000 and 30,000 students.

Should the number of families qualifying for the credit exceed the $150 million provided, the program prioritizes families earning no more than $150,000. To receive priority consideration, families must apply on or before Monday, Feb. 5, 2024.

Private school officials say there are many families who fall into the priority category.

“It’s a great benefit. Our families are excited for the opportunity,” said Rodney Burchett, head of school at Life Christian Academy in Nicoma Park. “And the vast majority of our parents make less than $150,000 a year, so hopefully most of them will get approved.”

He said the program is already allowing families to enroll their children in private school who could only dream of taking that step in the past.

“We sent postcards out to families announcing this,” Burchett said. “We’ve had about 10 families that have pre-enrolled for the fall semester, and then there’s been five or six families that are moving their students to our school starting in January. We have seen a pretty good response and all of those have said, ‘We wanted to be in Christian schools, there’s just no way we could afford it. And this is making it possible for us to come now.’”

Shona Zybach of Elk City said one of the “best decisions” she and her husband Kyle made was to send their children to Western Oklahoma Christian School and Corn Bible Academy.

“At times it’s been so challenging,” Zybach said, “but the rewards and blessings are limitless.”

For the family, she said the combination of an “excellent education” with a Christian worldview provides benefit that exceeds any associated financial challenges. She believes many other families feel the same way and the tax credit now makes private school viable for many more parents.

“The Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit is going to provide so many more opportunities for families to choose Christian education,” Zybach said. “We are excited that more Oklahoma families will have the opportunity to choose Christian education. Our next generations need Jesus and we need leaders raised up who are prayer warriors, immersed in the love and word of God, unashamed of the gospel, established on a firm foundation, and with Christ as the anchor for their souls. This gives us hope.”

Keisha Booth, a mother of four in Clinton, said the program “comes at a pivotal and crucial time for my family and our country.”

“The oldest of my children is a senior in high school and the youngest will just be starting his education in August 2024,” Booth said. “I am honored and grateful to have the opportunity to put our tax dollars to great use while securing a promising education for my children.”

Genifer Gifford, an Elk City, mother of five, said, “I’m beyond grateful for the tax credit because it allows parents to choose schools that are a better fit for their child. I have some children in public schools, but this helps with having one child who has done much better in the private school setting.”

The program will also bolster private schools that have been created to primarily serve students from working-class backgrounds.

“It’s a huge win for Crossover Prep, because it makes the sustainability of our school so much more realistic and achievable and attainable,” said Philip Abode, executive director of Crossover Preparatory Academy in north Tulsa.

Crossover Preparatory was created to serve students from working-class, mostly minority families in Tulsa. Nearly all students served by the school are expected to fall within the priority income categories.

Approximately 140 accredited schools have been registered to participate in the program. Those private schools are located across Oklahoma, including in Ardmore, Bartlesville, Blanchard, Bristow, Broken Arrow, Claremore, Clinton, Del City, Durant, Edmond, El Reno, Enid, Goldsby, Guthrie, Hillsdale, Lawton, McAlester, Miami, Midwest City, Moore, Muskogee, Nicoma Park, Norman, Okarche, Okmulgee, Owasso, Pawhuska, Ponca City, Pryor, Sapulpa, Shawnee, Sand Springs, Stillwater, Sulphur, Tahlequah, Warr Acres, Woodward, Yukon, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The Oklahoma Tax Commission continues to accept applications from families seeking the first round of credits, which will apply to the spring 2024 semester.

“I’m elated that parents and students are taking advantage of the most transformative change to Oklahoma's education system in decades,” Stitt said. “School choice should be for everyone, not just the rich. What we’ve accomplished is a victory for students and a step towards true education freedom. It is amazing to see the demand for this program, and I hope the Legislature will consider ways to allow more families to apply for this tax credit in the future. I applaud the team at the Oklahoma Tax Commission for a successful rollout, and I look forward to cheering on students as they enroll in a new era of educational excellence in our state.”

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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