| February 1, 2010

Newberry Bill Advances Scholarships for Parental Choice

In an attempt to expand the choices available for parents of elementary and secondary students, state Sen. Dan Newberry (R-Tulsa) this month introduced the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.

Senate Bill 1922 would allow individual income tax credits (with some limitations) of up to $1,000 a year for individuals, and $2,000 for couples, for contributions made to eligible scholarship-granting organizations. There would be no limit on the statewide total of such individual contributions. The total value of credits available to businesses would be limited to $10 million a year (and $100,000 per business).

The tuition scholarships would be limited to families making up to 300 percent of "the income standard used to qualify for a free or reduced school lunch." Grants for special-needs students also would be allowed. Scholarships could only be used at accredited schools with accountability in place, and with standards to conduct criminal background checks of teachers and staff.

SB 1922 comes in a context that is both hopeful and challenging to choice. "Challenging" is a revenue crunch for state government flowing from tax receipts far below last year's projections from the Board of Equalization. The national recession reached Oklahoma with a vengeance. "Hopeful" is the increasingly diverse base of support for experimentation in delivery of educational services, and the determination of state leaders to assure continued support for education.

Further, former state Sen. James Williamson (R-Tulsa) was a sponsor of the tax credit for choice measure in 2008, when the dam broke dramatically in favor of his proposal. The debate proceeding that vote was one of the most elevating in recent memory. Last month, Williamson was named a senior policy advisor in the state Senate. An ardent conservative enjoying cordial relations with former colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he could bring an "X factor" into the equation as Newberry's proposal comes under scrutiny.

Several members of the Senate, Democrats generally considered liberal, not only favored the Williamson bill in March 2008 but spoke eloquently in its favor. The most persuasive of these was the venerable Judy Eason-McIntyre (D-Tulsa). She defied long-time allies, expressing her admiration to Williamson for pushing an idea that would have, in that case, largely benefited minority children in the two largest cities.

Newberry's sponsorship comes in the midst of a new era in choice debate. As support intensifies in urban areas across traditional partisan lines, supportive legislators from outside urban regions are more visible. African-American officials from both cities, including legislators like Eason-McIntyre and state Rep. Jabar Shumate (also a Tulsa Democrat), remain active in the cause.

All in all, this could be the year the state Legislature dramatically advances options for parents seeking better educational opportunities for their children.

Patrick McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK. He works under a contract with OCPA to provide incisive, accurate, and timely news coverage of Oklahoma state government. Visit for in-depth reporting on the latest developments in state government.

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