Survey: Oklahoma voters support raising cap on scholarship program

April 8, 2019

Ray Carter

With members of a state House committee expected to vote this week on legislation raising the cap on an existing tax-credit scholarship program, new polling shows strong public support for the proposal.

Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, called the results “pleasing to hear” and noted the program has common-sense appeal.

“This helps students of Oklahoma, and is doing so with private money,” he said.

The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act provides a tax credit to businesses and individuals who donate private funds to organizations that provide private-school scholarships. The program also provides tax credits to those who donate to programs that benefit traditional public schools, which is currently aiding students in districts like Chickasha and Magnum.

Current law caps the amount of tax credits that can be issued, and the cap has been reached. Senate Bill 407, by Rader and Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, would raise the cap to encourage more private donations to education.

Polling conducted by WPA Intelligence and commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, parent organization of the Center for Independent Journalism, shows 60 percent of Oklahomans support raising the cap. Only 23 percent were opposed, with just 16 percent of voters strongly opposed.

Those findings underscore comments Echols made earlier this year when he noted the program has strong inherent appeal.

“Your focus is on the children. You’re encouraging innovation. You’re encouraging giving them more opportunities,” Echols said. “I think it’s been a very successful program. My only beef with the program is we need to talk about it. We need to tell people it’s out there.”

Majorities in all parts of the state supported raising program cap, and in four of Oklahoma’s five congressional districts support hit at least 60 percent. Among both suburban and rural women, the proposal drew support from 61 percent of respondents, with just 23 percent and 22 percent opposed, respectively. The poll found 51 percent of respondents who had a teacher in the household supported boosting the tax-credit scholarship program.

Support was also strong across party lines. Fifty-eight percent of Republican women supported raising the cap on the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act with just 23 percent opposed. Among Democratic women, support was even stronger with 70 percent in favor of raising the cap compared to just 17 percent opposed. Sixty-five percent of Republican men supported raising the cap, as did 53 percent of Democratic men.

That broad support was the initial response of poll takers after they were informed the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Program “encourages private donors to contribute to special programs in public schools and to scholarships for lower-income students to attend nonpublic schools. Right now, this program is limited on the amount of funds it can receive but legislators are considering raising the overall limit of the program.”

When respondents were informed that beneficiaries of tax-credit scholarships typically include children facing great personal challenges, support surged to even higher levels. Support for raising the tax-credit cap grew to 79 percent statewide when respondents were informed “some of the scholarship recipients in this program attend special schools for students with learning disabilities, or for students whose families are homeless.”

When respondents were told “public-school recipients of this program were using the funds to serve students in rural areas and to create innovative science and math programs,” support for raising the cap hit 80 percent.

Rader isn’t surprised that support increased as people learned more about the program.

“As more and more people learn the ins and outs of it, the percentage will grow even higher,” he predicted.

Students currently benefiting from the tax-credit scholarship program include children at Crossover Prep, an all-boys Christian school serving low-income minority children in north Tulsa; The Little Lighthouse, which serves Tulsa-area children with special needs like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, and blindness; Positive Tomorrows, an Oklahoma City school serving homeless children; and Cristo Rey OKC Catholic High School, which provides a high-quality college prep education to low-income, mostly minority students.

Rader predicted that as Oklahomans see how the tax-credit scholarship program benefits flesh-and-blood children, support will grow not just in breadth but intensity.

“As with any endeavor into education, once you become familiar with the persons that are involved, you become even more interested in it and you move beyond empathetic to desiring to help,” Rader said. “When people see individuals who, for whatever reason, it wasn’t working at one type of school and they went to another and it worked for them, you say, ‘This is nothing but good for our state.’”

The main objection critics raise is that tax credits reduce the amount of state funding available to pay for other priorities, including traditional public schools. But independent research has repeatedly shown the tax credits for private-school scholarship donations effectively increase state revenue. Researchers found state government saves $1.39 for every dollar in credits issued for the private-school portion of the program because the associated reduction in government costs exceeds any loss of revenue from the tax credit. Therefore, economic researchers concluded the scholarship part of the program does not reduce funding for any other government function, including traditional schools, even as it generates substantial private investment in Oklahoma education.

The portion of the program providing tax credits for donations to initiatives that support public schools has not undergone similar analysis, but it is generally understood that part of the program would involve a minimal reduction in state revenue.

The poll of 501 registered Oklahoma voters was conducted from April 2 to 4 and included respondents on both cell phones and landlines.