By Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin
The Opportunity Scholarship program, sponsored by state Sen. Dan Newberry of Sand Springs/Tulsa, passed the Oklahoma Senate last week and is now awaiting Governor Mary Fallin’s possible signature. The measure could become state law.
Senator Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, in colloquy with Senator Newberry during the final debate, pressed the lead sponsor on the issue of affordability for students seeking private providers of educational services. He doubted that scholarship benefits would be sufficient to benefit low-income children in his (MidTown Oklahoma City) district. In the case of Bishop John Carroll Elementary in Rice’s district, the $4,000 tuition falls under the $5,000 Newberry was using as an example of comparative affordability.
Rice is the leader of Democrats in the upper chamber. Members of his caucus generally opposed the bill, including passionate arguments by state Sen. Jim Wilson of Tahlequah.
Wilson asserted high-income individuals would largely benefit. He characterized the measure at least three times as “a voucher bill,” saying the proposal amounted to a transfer of funds from the general fund to private schools. Wilson said, “This bill is so bad. I’m surprised it’s out here.”
Senator Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne contended the legislation did not match the stated Republican purpose of creating jobs and improving the economy.
Newberry defended the bill as allowing private support to empower parents with students in poor performing schools the option to access higher quality education, including access to private providers of educational services. In one sequence of today’s debate, he answered a sympathetic question about benefits to the poor from Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre of Tulsa, a Democrat who supported the bill.
Newberry believes the measure’s economic benefit lies creation of a better-educated workforce. He also shared an example of a poor woman with two children who had benefited from a similar program in another state. He thanked colleagues for “the spirited tone of the debate,” and asked for yes votes.
The Senate vote ratified amendments that had been made in the state House. New provisions added there allow tax credits to individuals and businesses, to finance grants for new programs in rural public schools. The new language seemed to shore up the measure in the lower House, where it prevailed 64-33. House
Republicans generally backed the measure, and were joined by Democratic state Reps. Rebecca Hamilton of south Oklahoma City and Jabar Shumate of north Tulsa. Hamilton delivered an impassioned defense of the measure in the closing debate in the House chamber.
The program is limited as a “start-up” for choice aimed at creating opportunities for students in failing schools. Of resources created in scholarship-granting organizations, $3.5 million could go to individual scholarships, while the remaining $1.5 million would fund the grants to help rural schools in areas where private school is not an option. Provisions in the bill empower parents of children in failing public schools to access the education provider of their choice through scholarship-granting organizations financed by private individuals and corporations. Tax credits are limited to 50% of the value of the gifts.
In debate spread over two days, Sen. Newberry was peppered with questions from Democratic colleagues, including Wilson, Leblance, John Sparks of Norman, Tom Adelson of Tulsa and Earl Garrison of Muskogee. Each of those senators opposed the bill on Thursday, save for Adelson, who missed the vote.
Republican Sen. James Halligan of Stillwater told Newberry in Wednesday’s discussion, “I support your bill,” but wondered if allowing recipients who come from families at 300% of the poverty line (as defined in the free and reduced lunch program) was too high on the upper end.
Newberry pointed out the program gives economically challenged children an edge in the work of scholarship granting organizations, by pointing to access allowed for students from “needs improvement” school sites. Additionally, the rural benefit language broadens the pool of potential beneficiaries, he argued.
Democratic Sens. Garrison, Rice and Adelson each voted yes on a precursor bill (by former Sen. James Williamson of Tulsa) in 2008, but opposed the measure this time. Sen. Eason-McIntyre, however, backed the bill, as she did the 2008 approach, and this particular bill earlier in this session.
The final Senate margin represented 27 Republicans and one Democrat in support. Joining Sen. Eason-McIntyre and Newberry were these Republicans: Cliff Aldridge of Midwest City, Mark Allen of Spiro, Patrick Anderson of Enid, Don Barrington of Lawton, Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Cliff Branan of Oklahoma City, Josh Brecheen of Coalgate, Brinkley, Harry Coates of Seminole, Kim David of Porter, Eddie Fields of Wynona, John Ford of Bartlesville, James Halligan of Stillwater, David Holt of Oklahoma City, Rob Johnson of Kingfisher, Clark Jolley of Edmond, Ron Justice of Chickasha, Bryce Marlatt of Woodward, Mike Mazzei of Tulsa, Jonathan Nichols of Norman, Ralph Shortey of Oklahoma City, Simpson, Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, Anthony Sykes of Moore, and Greg Treat of Oklahoma City.
Voting against were 11 Democrats and one Republican, Majority Floor Leader Mike Shultz of Altus. In addition to Rice, Sparks, Wilson, Garrison and Lerblance, no votes came from Democrats Roger Ballenger of Okmulgee, Randy Bass of Lawton, Sean Burrage of Claremore, Jerry Ellis of Valliant, Tom Ivester of Elk City, and Susan Paddack of Ada.
Not voting were four Democrats and four Republicans. The Democrats listed as excused were Adelson, Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City, Charlie Laster of Shawnee, and Charles Wyrick of Fairland. The Republicans were Steve Russell of Oklahoma City, Jim Reynolds of Oklahoma City, David Myers of Ponca City, and Bill Brown of Broken Arrow.
If the legislation is signed by Fallin, it will enter the law books as the work product of a bipartisan coalition that included the vast majority of Republicans in the Legislature working in combination with the three urban Democrats to secure final passage.
Supporters of the legislation were invigorated recently, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in an Arizona case, approved of a program similar to the one Newberry and his House sponsor, state Rep. Lee Denney, had designed.
The court’s decision came in early April, in the case of ACSTO vs. Winn. Some analysts have asserted the case was primarily rooted in “standing” to sue. However, in conjunction with precedents, the case has broader implications.
In distilled form, the court’s analysis, in a 5-4 decision, is that a tax credit for educational scholarships cannot be considered government spending. At one point the majority opinion argued that private bank accounts should not be equated with the state treasury.
In the court’s analysis, when a parent/child receives a scholarship/funding from a scholarship granting organization, the only portion of state involvement is the tax credit itself.
As one knowledgeable analyst told The City Sentinel after reading the decision, the court opinion is best understood this way: “A parent’s choice of the private school or educational option for the child has NO state involvement whatsoever. The state may fund the education of a child and if it does so — by tuition support, scholarship, or voucher — the extent of the state’s involvement ends at the point when the parent/child receives the funding. After that point, the choice of which school to attend is a private choice.”