Ray Carter | January 15, 2020

Tax-credit scholarship program could shape north Tulsa’s future

Ray Carter

As a college football player at The University of Tulsa, Philip Abode gained a greater appreciation for the importance of education—not simply by pursuing a college degree, but also by seeing how the lack of a quality K-12 education impacted his teammates.

“I’ve seen a lot of my teammates flunk out or declare for the draft, not because they were that good, but because they were ineligible,” Abode said. “That’s what helped me to see a potential need for something like this.”

The “something like this” is Crossover Preparatory Academy in north Tulsa, a private school serving students in grades six through nine that Abode helped found. The student body is all-male, primarily black and low-income.

According to 2017 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, African-American males have the lowest four-year college graduation rate in the country. Crossover officials note obtaining a bachelor’s degree is one of the strongest predictors of economic stability. But in the north Tulsa community surrounding Crossover, just 15.3 percent of residents have a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

Abode and other officials at Crossover are working to change not just education statistics in north Tulsa, but the community’s future. Crossover Preparatory Academy’s mission statement declares the school “is committed to restoring our community by developing educated, godly men who love north Tulsa.”

The school pursues that goal with an emphasis on both academics and character development. A typical morning session begins with a leader asking, “What does a Crossover man do?” The students respond en masse: “A Crossover man accepts responsibility.”

But the school and its students face two major challenges.

The first is to ensure students who are performing below grade level when they enter Crossover leave on a college-ready track.

“The average is ‘behind,’” Abode said of the average student’s academic performance upon entering the school. In some instances, he said Crossover officials have “been filling third-and-fourth grade gaps” for students.

But the other challenge—which in some ways can be more daunting—is ensuring there’s a way to pay for local youth to attend the private school. That’s where the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act comes in. That state program provides a tax credit for donations to private scholarship-granting organizations. Scholarships funded by the program go primarily to low-income children or those with special needs.

Abode said the program has been crucial for Crossover students. 

However, the scholarship program’s reach has been hampered by the current cap on the amount of tax credits that can be issued. The cap has been reached, reducing opportunity for many low-income children.

Senate Bill 407, by Sen. Dave Rader (Abode’s former college coach) and Rep. Jon Echols, would raise the cap to encourage more private donations to education. Polling has shown 60 percent of Oklahomans support raising the cap.

Independent analysis has found the tax-credit scholarship reduces state expenses. But supporters argue the program’s true selling point is not financial benefit, but the flesh-and-blood impact seen in the lives of students like those at Crossover Preparatory Academy.

On a recent morning during student Convocation, Abode introduced a handful of local officials in attendance to view the real-life benefits of the scholarship program—with one visitor standing out.

“The governor, Kevin Stitt, is also here,” Abode said to his students. “They’re all here because you guys are doing something special.”

During brief comments to Crossover pupils, Stitt stressed the “wonderful, wonderful opportunity” that “lies in front of you to be here at this school, to be taught these wonderful principles—to put God first, to take personal responsibility.”

Stitt recalled two boys, best friends, who attended middle school together in Oklahoma—Steve and John. In high school, Steve began to dabble in drugs. John “started to go down that path, but then realized that was a loser strategy” and was forced to instead make new friends.

“Life didn’t turn out good for Steve,” Stitt said. “He ended up in prison in the state of Oklahoma. The other boy, John, was me. And I became governor of the state of Oklahoma. And if you rewound back when we were sitting next to each other in middle school, just like you’re doing today, you couldn’t tell which one was going to be in prison and which one was going to be governor.”

Last November, Stitt signed the largest commutation in U.S. history, releasing more than 460 individuals who were incarcerated for certain drug and property crimes.

“Little did I know at the time, but my friend Steve from middle school was on that list,” Stitt said.

The governor told Crossover students that “God has a special plan and a purpose for each one of you” and urged them to take advantage of the opportunities before them and understand that their actions will impact their lives for years.

“It is the choices that you make that determine your future and your destiny,” Stitt said. “I may be looking at a future governor out here or a business leader—or whatever God’s put in your heart to accomplish, you can do it.”

Stitt supports raising the cap on the tax-credit scholarship program, and has said it makes “a lot of sense to me” and is “something we can get across the finish line.”

Visiting with Crossover officials, Stitt reiterated his support.

“We’re going to be working on that cap,” he said.

Abode hopes the governor and lawmakers succeed. He noted nearly 100 percent of students at Crossover qualify for tax-credit scholarships, and all students at the school participate in the free-and-reduced lunch program.

“Our school,” Abode said, “doesn’t exist without the tax-credit scholarships.”

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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