Ray Carter | April 28, 2023

Two chambers, two school-choice measures in two days

Ray Carter

Just a day after their counterparts in the Oklahoma House of Representatives supported creation of a major school-choice tax-credit program, members of the state Senate did the same thing, easily advancing a similar measure.

Large majorities in both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature have now passed major school-choice legislation twice apiece, setting the stage for compromise.

“The major message is we trust parents and we believe in the future of our children,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

In both chambers, school-choice legislation was paired with other legislation providing at least $500 million in increased funding to public schools.

Members of the Senate amended House Bill 1934 to create the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act.

Under the Senate’s latest proposal, parents would receive refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition with the largest tax credits going to the lowest-income families. Because the tax credits are refundable, even low-income parents would benefit.

Under the Senate proposal, families earning below $75,000 would qualify for a $7,500 tax credit. Those with incomes of $75,000 to $150,000 would get a $7,000 credit. Families with income between $150,000 and $225,000 would get a $6,500 credit. Those earning between $225,000 and $250,000 would get a $6,000 credit, and those earning more than $250,000 would get a $5,000 credit.

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

In 2024, the private-school tax-credit program would be capped at $150 million. In 2025, the cap would be increased to $200 million and in 2026 the cap would be $250 million.

Democrats opposed the measure, arguing families should not be able to use their tax dollars to increase their children’s educational opportunities.

“Why are we giving people money so that they can exercise school choice?” said state Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City. “By the very virtue of the term ‘school choice,’ you choose to go to another school. And if you choose to send your children to another school, you choose to pay for it.”

“Status quo is doubling down on expanding these voucher programs to continue to drain and defund our public schools of resources that they so desperately need for our children,” said state Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City.

State Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, objected to the bill since many private schools have religious affiliations and admission can be tied to the school’s religious mission in addition to academics.

“They can exclude kids based on religion,” Boren said.

She complained that private schools will not be subjected to the same regulations as public schools, but then complained that the regulations imposed on public schools are “so oppressive that it causes a lack of success.”

Boren conceded that attendance at a private school can be very beneficial to many students.

“We all know that there are really good examples of families having really good outcomes and really good experiences in private schools,” Boren said. “The issue is who should pay for that and what accountability should go along with that if taxpayers are paying for it.”

Supporters noted no one will be forced to attend any private school if they do not agree with its religious tenets and said accountability will come from parents’ ability to leave any school that is not serving them well.

“I have, for a long time, been a supporter of school choice, for those situations where parents believe that their children aren’t thriving as much as they could, might have a better academic success, a better future, if only they had an opportunity to try a different situation, yet income has prevented them from doing so,” said state Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville.

State Sen. Ally Seifried, R-Claremore, said the stereotype of “rich” kids attending private schools, referenced by opponents, is not based in reality for many children. Seifried recalled her own experience attending a small private high school where she was one of 16 students in her grade.

“I was not privileged and the narrative that private school is for the rich kids is blatantly false,” Seifried said.

She noted her private school’s basketball team did not have a home gym, had an old van “that routinely broke down,” and players wore 10-to-15 year old jerseys.

She also noted every proposed tax credit would cover the full cost of tuition at her high school.

“School choice is not about tearing down public schools,” Seifried said. “I have never viewed it that way. It is about making sure students have as many opportunities as possible. I want everything. I want great public schools. I want great private schools. I want homeschool parents to be empowered.”

Tuition at most private schools in Oklahoma is lower than the per-pupil funding in Oklahoma’s public schools.

In 2022, the average per-student expenditure in Oklahoma public schools was $12,967.

In contrast, tuition at 81 private schools in Oklahoma is less than $12,967, including many of the state’s largest-enrollment private schools, and many have tuition rates far below that level.

State Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, noted 7 percent of Oklahoma children currently attend private school or are homeschooled, and noted those children would be getting far less than their proportionate share of state education funding under the proposed program.

“Let’s do the math,” Pugh said. “Fifteen billion dollars: That’s how much Oklahoma public schools has. Fifteen billion. So let’s take 7 percent of $15 billion. That’s $1.05 billion. You mean to tell me that for another 60,000 or 70,000 kids, that would be getting 7 percent of the $15 billion we spend in education, those kids aren’t worth $250 million?”

He also pushed back against those who said families can already easily exercise school choice.

Pugh noted the Western Heights district was placed on probation in 2021 by the State Board of Education because, among other things, the district failed to provide instructional services to students and failed to provide food through the school-lunch program.

“Those kids had a choice?” Pugh said. “Are you kidding me? A hundred years ago we drew a boundary around those kids and we said no matter what, even if your school district fails you, you have no choice. That district didn’t even provide the food for those kids when they were getting federal funding from the USDA. Failure to provide instructional services. What choice did those kids have? A whole generation of kids, ruined, because adults couldn’t get out of the way and serve them – with $15 billion. And someone’s going to stand up here and tell me that $250 million is too much to maybe give those kids a chance?”

State Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, noted he was a “public-school-proud teacher” who taught for 15 years, but said it “pains me” the way opponents of HB 1934 “look at other kids and try and make them second-class citizens, to talk about kids in private schools and homeschools as if they matter less than a kid in a public school.”

“We are putting historic gains in public schools because we value those teachers and those kids. This bill is no different,” Bullard said. “We are putting money into areas where it will be utilized and used and we’re treating every single kid in Oklahoma as a first-class citizen.”

State Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, noted he opposed legislation creating education savings accounts last year, but supports this year’s tax-credit bill because it is paired with $500 million in new funding for public schools, “the largest infusion of cash into our education system that we have seen in this state to date.”

“This bill is parental rights,” Murdock said. “This bill helps my district get more money to their public schools.”

State Sen. Kristen Thompson, R-Edmond, said the proposed education measures for both school choice and increased public-school funding provide a win for all families.

“I think today the Senate has shown that we are ready to make record investments in public education,” Thompson said. “We want to give parents choice when those kids need options. You can be for all kids. It doesn’t have to look the same way it did 100 years ago.”

HB 1934 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 36-10 vote. The bill now proceeds to the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

A day prior members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted in favor of a proposed school-choice compromise in the House half of a joint conference committee.

House Bill 1935, as amended by the House, would provide a private-school tax credit of $5,000 per student for the 2023 tax year, $6,000 per student for the 2024 tax year, and $6,500 per student for the 2025 tax year and beyond. The tax credit for homeschoolers would be $1,000 per child.

The program would be capped at $200 million for 2023 and 2024 with no cap in subsequent years. In the first two years, the tax credits would be prioritized for families making less than $250,000 annually. Beginning with the 2025 tax year, there would be no program cap.

House lawmakers approved HB 1935 on Wednesday with little debate. The measure was approved on a 73-17 vote of House conference committee members.

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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