Stitt endorses educational-choice expansion

February 7, 2022

Ray Carter

In his State of the State address, Gov. Kevin Stitt urged legislators to be bold and provide Oklahoma families with a significant expansion of school-choice opportunity, saying families should have the greatest voice in how their children are educated.

“In Oklahoma, we listen to parents, because we know God gave kids to parents—not to the government,” Stitt said.

He also called for providing “six figure” salaries to the state’s best teachers to keep them in the classroom rather than shifting to administrative positions.

Stitt noted that last year lawmakers voted to increase school-choice opportunity by expanding a tax-credit program for donations to organizations providing private-school scholarships to lower- and middle-income families

Jonathan Wright, a freshman at Oklahoma Bible Academy in Enid, is among the beneficiaries of that program and attended Stitt’s speech. When Jonathan was three years old, he was adopted out of foster care by a single mom. His family has used a tax-credit-created Equal Opportunity Scholarship to send Wright to Oklahoma Bible Academy for four years. Stitt noted that Wright’s adoptive mother said the school has “transformed his life.”

While the expansion of the tax-credit program was a good first step, Stitt said more is still needed, pointing to Oklahoma’s poor overall national rankings in education. Although he said Oklahoma “has a lot of great schools,” Stitt added that “the results don’t lie.”

“In Oklahoma, we listen to parents, because we know God gave kids to parents—not to the government.” —Gov. Kevin Stitt

“Just 15 percent of Oklahoma high school graduates are ready for college in English, math, reading, and science—less than one out of five,” Stitt said. “We can do better than 47th in the nation when it comes to our kids. We’ve tiptoed around the edges for far too long. It’s clear the status quo is not working. We need to take bold steps. It will take courage, and it will take a desire to make a generational impact. This is our moment.”

Stitt vowed to “support any legislation that gives parents more school choice” and specifically pointed to Senate Bill 1647, by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. That legislation would create the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program. Under the program, any student eligible to enroll in a public school would be eligible for an OEA account, which could be used to pay for a range of education services, including private-school tuition.

“It makes sure that money follows the student,” Stitt said of Treat’s bill, “and it would make us a national leader in school choice.”

Treat thanked Stitt for his support in a statement.

“The governor gave a substantive speech outlining several priorities that will take Oklahoma to the next level,” Treat said. “I appreciate the governor’s support of the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, which is a transformative education reform bill. Education is the key to bringing generational change and breaking the poverty cycle in our state. All parents should be empowered to pick the school that best serves the needs of their children. Senate Bill 1647 will put parents back in charge of their children’s education and help students pursue a great education regardless of where they live.”

In addition to calling for school-choice expansion, Stitt urged lawmakers to modernize the “outdated and broken” school-transportation formula and to provide greater pay to the state’s best teachers. The current system, he noted, incentivizes the best teachers to leave the classroom for administrative positions if they want to earn more.

“Oklahoma students can’t be the best without the best teachers,” Stitt said. “That’s why I’m proposing matching funds so that our best teachers can make six figure salaries and stay in the classroom.”

He also urged lawmakers to enact reforms that prevent automatic deduction of union dues from teacher paychecks and instead allow that to occur only at the proactive request of a teacher.

“The same unions that have pushed critical race theory and school closures intimidate new teachers into handing over part of their salaries,” Stitt said. “Liberal unions want to keep a stranglehold on their cut of teacher pay. Enough is enough. Every other profession lets you opt-in to health insurance and other benefits at work every year. Unions should be opt-in, not opt-out.”

Proposals Draw Praise, Criticism

Stitt’s education agenda drew praise from several groups.

ChoiceMatters, an Oklahoma organization dedicated to increasing education options for parents, was among those cheering Stitt.

“Every child is different, and every parent should have the ability to honor those differences by finding a school that best fits their needs,” said ChoiceMatters executive director Robert Ruiz. “Too often, our public school system embraces a one-size-fits-all system that elevates bureaucrats and unions over the individual needs of parents and students. Governor Stitt should get a lot of credit for taking on that system and working to put parents back in charge.”

Ruiz said the parents that ChoiceMatters works with are particularly excited by the governor’s support of SB 1647, the Oklahoma Empowerment Act.

“‘Empowerment Accounts’ will put parents back in charge of their children’s education and ensure they have the ability to make meaningful choices when it comes to schools,” said Ruiz. “This is about ensuring that no family is trapped in a failing school and every student finds a school that best fits their needs.”

Larry Parman, chairman of the board of trustees for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, also praised Stitt’s support for Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts (OEAs).

“Today Governor Stitt outlined an agenda for the upcoming legislative session that included his enthusiastic support of Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts,” Parman said. “OEAs will provide greater power and autonomy to parents by allowing money to follow the student to any setting that best serves that child, including private schools. Passage of the OEA law would make Oklahoma a national leader in educational opportunity and—ultimately—improved academic outcomes. Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat has shown tremendous leadership by filing Senate Bill 1647, and now Governor Stitt has made clear that passing this bill is a key component of making Oklahoma a Top Ten state. I encourage all lawmakers to join the governor and pro tempore in supporting this crucial legislation. It’s time to put parents in charge of education, and place students first in policymaking.”

The American Federation for Children-Oklahoma also praised Stitt for making education, and specifically school choice, a focal point.

“All parents should be allowed to select the school and educational experience that best serves their child,” said AFC-Oklahoma senior advisor Jennifer Carter. “Our current system leaves too many working families stuck in failing schools, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and inequality. SB 1647 will help break that cycle by giving parents the means to pursue other options if their local school is not a good fit for their children.”

Carter also said the governor made it clear that parent voices should be respected and honored when the state fashions education policies.

“Our thanks go out to Governor Stitt for making it clear that parents—not unions or bureaucrats—are the people we need to be listening to when it comes to educating our kids,” Carter said. “The Legislature should follow the governor’s lead and ensure they are prioritizing parents and students over systems and institutions.”

Others panned Stitt’s proposals.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who announced in October 2021 that she was switching parties to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, issued a statement saying SB 1647 “is a rural school killer and robs funds from the 90 percent of Oklahoma kids attending public school. Stitt is dismantling public education by handing over millions of taxpayer dollars to fund private tuition for wealthy families.”

While Hofmeister described the bill as defunding education, under the legislation all money currently appropriated for K-12 education would continue to go to K-12 education services.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, voiced similar criticisms, calling Stitt’s speech “the most divisive State of the State that I have heard in 12 years.”

“The vast majority of students in Oklahoma attend public schools,” Virgin said. “Yet the governor wants to take resources out of those public schools and send them to private schools in the form of vouchers. We as a caucus have long stood against sending public dollars to private schools and we stand ready to fight against that effort once again.”

Under SB 1647, a public school would lose money only if local parents choose to send their children elsewhere.

Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, accused Stitt of pitting “parents against educators for political gain.” She said “the data is clear” that school-choice opportunities do “not help students.”

The 2021 edition of the EdChoice Study Guide shows that of 169 studies of private-school choice programs done nationwide to date, 146 found positive benefits associated with school-choice programs and only 11 found any negative effect.

“Nearly every study of parent satisfaction ever conducted finds ESA (Education Savings Accounts), voucher, and scholarship programs have a positive effect on families’ schooling experiences,” the report stated.

The OEA also declined to endorse Stitt’s proposal to provide six-figure salaries to good teachers. Bishop instead said the union was “looking forward to seeing his explanation of how he’ll fund it and who would receive it.”