Widowed mother of three among Oklahoma school-choice beneficiaries

Ray Carter | February 5, 2024

Five years ago, Emily McDonald lost her husband, Gary, to Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Since then, she has raised her three children, including a son with autism, as a single parent on a modest income.

Then a year ago, on top of everything else, the family faced another challenge: McDonald’s youngest child, Anna, was enduring constant bullying in kindergarten at a Deer Creek public school because she was defending her brother.

“She was receiving a lot of bullying because of her autistic brother, and she was really struggling academically,” McDonald said. “She was coming home crying almost every day. And I just was hoping to find a different environment, but private schools are just financially out of my reach.”

As the family faced that challenge, McDonald learned state lawmakers were debating legislation to create a tax credit to help families pay for private school starting in January 2024. There was no guarantee the bill would become law, but it provided hope. McDonald took a chance and enrolled Anna in a private school for the 2023-2024 school year.

“When I heard of the tax credit, I just went ahead and enrolled her in a private school that was close to my house—it’s Holy Trinity Lutheran School—and just really took that leap of faith and prayed that the legislators would pass this so she would be able to go,” McDonald said. “And thank God, they did.”

On Monday, Feb. 5, McDonald attended Gov. Kevin Stitt’s “State of the State” address as a guest of the governor, who highlighted the success of the new Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act during his speech.

“Thanks to everybody in this room—or, almost everybody—we led the nation by passing the revolutionary Parental Choice Tax Credit last year,” Stitt told lawmakers, drawing applause. “Now, students and parents, they have more options than ever. Because we know God gave kids to their parents, not to the government.”

The state law that created the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition.

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

Those two brackets are considered priority families who are to be served first in the program before other families with higher incomes.

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

In 2024, the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit 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.

McDonald and her daughter represent just one of many examples of private-school families who defy the stereotype employed last year by school-choice critics, who claimed private school is almost exclusively the domain of the wealthy.

“[My daughter] is happy and just a lot more at peace with herself in the environment. It’s just been life-changing for her and for me.” —Emily McDonald

House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, resurrected that caricature again in a press conference responding to Stitt’s “State of the State” address, denouncing Stitt’s support for raising the cap on the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit to allow more families to access the program.

“Those are taxpayer dollars that he wants to go back to those who don’t need it, who are already sending their children to private schools,” Munson said.

Instead, according to the most recent figures available from the Oklahoma Tax Commission, the majority of the $150 million in first-year school-choice tax credits will go to low-income and middle-class families.

So far, $83.5 million in tax credits has been approved for children from families in the two priority tiers, including $39 million in credits for 6,672 students from families with incomes below $75,000.

The number of tax-credit beneficiaries from families earning less than $75,000 exceeds the student count for all but 17 of Oklahoma’s more than 500 public-school districts, based on enrollment data for the current school year.

“It really eases that burden from losing my husband because he was our primary breadwinner,” McDonald said. “So losing him, financially, really made me struggle. That’s why having this tax credit is so important. I am a low-income family. And I can just tell you that it makes me really frustrated to hear some of the people talk about how it only benefits the rich. I am not rich, by any stretch of the imagination. I am a single mother raising three children.”

Notably, even the $7,500 maximum school-choice tax credit is far less than what is being spent per-pupil in Oklahoma’s public schools.

According to Oklahoma State Department of Education data, public-school district expenditures in 2023 totaled $9,538,453,992.67 when student enrollment was 701,066, meaning the per-student expenditure was $13,605 that year, the most recent for which full data are available.

The share of tax-credit beneficiaries from families earning less than $150,000 is expected to increase in future years as more low-income and middle-class families become aware of the program and shift their children to private schools. Many private schools are already working on plans to address growing demand.

While her other two children have been well-served in public school, McDonald said the shift to private school has been enormously beneficial to Anna. Her daughter has already jumped three grade levels in reading ability during only a half-year in private school.

“She’s happy and just a lot more at peace with herself in the environment,” McDonald said. “It’s just been life-changing for her and for me.”

The school has provided a place where Anna’s education is prioritized—and where her brother’s autism is not cause for abuse.

“At Holy Trinity, we found a school community where children, they’re friends,” McDonald said. “There’s nobody sitting by themselves. There’s nobody being bullied. They really focus on Christian faith and the academics. Whenever you find an environment that fits your family values, everything else thrives from there.”

Just as no two children are exactly alike, Stitt noted the reasons families may choose private school for their children vary, and praised lawmakers for embracing a program that maximizes the ability of Oklahoma families to better meet the needs of all children.

“There are so many reasons parents may choose a different school that isn’t their neighborhood school,” Stitt said, “and it’s our job to make sure they have that freedom.”

McDonald praised lawmakers for opening the door of educational opportunity to children like her own.

“Being a single mom is very difficult. And when your kid’s needs aren’t being met, and you don’t have the financial resources to just move them instantaneously, it’s kind of a helpless feeling,” McDonald said. “This tax credit has really given us hope and reinvigorated the entire family. Everybody’s happy and healthy and really thriving right now in their own unique environments that fits what’s best for them.”

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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