Ray Carter, Center for Independent Journalism
OKLAHOMA CITY – Members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives have passed a significant expansion of a school-choice program that has benefited thousands of low-income students, sending the measure to Gov. Kevin Stitt to be signed into law.
“These opportunities are real,” said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, “and they change the trajectories of peoples’ lives.”
Senate Bill 1080 increases the size of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, which provides tax credits to those who donate to organizations that provide private-school scholarships.
Under current law, the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program is limited to $3.5 million annually in tax credits for donations to organizations that provide private-school scholarships. SB 1080 would raise that figure to $25 million.
Under the program, at least 58 percent of private-school scholarship recipients must qualify for the federal free-and-reduced lunch program, ensuring most students benefiting from the program are from working families.
The legislation also boosts a tax-credit program for private donations to public schools, raising that program’s cap from $1.5 million annually to $25 million. The legislation also makes all public schools eligible for the program for the first time and provides additional avenues for donors to support local public schools.
Echols said the legislation would provide at least $33.3 million in private funding for each side of the program if the full $25 million in credits is expended. That provides a net increase in public-school funding compared to what would occur if no credits were issued, he noted.
The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act has been described as life-changing and lifesaving. Its beneficiaries have included students previously trapped in schools that produce poor academic outcomes, students attending “sober school” while recovering from addiction, children recovering from trauma and abuse, and homeless students.
Supporters noted children from often-dire situations have benefited from the program and many more would be aided by its expansion.
Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, recalled his childhood when he and three other boys, all from low-income households whose families had immigrated to the United States years ago, were “forced to go to the school that failed their parents and their grandparents before them.”
He said the four boys were quickly “labeled as problem children,” and the attitude of school officials was, “Let’s face it: We don’t have the time or the resources. These are just little brown kids that are probably going to end up drug dealers, prisoners, dead. Who cares? Just another statistic, right?”
One of the boys dropped out of school in the ninth grade and died of an overdose by age 18. The second dropped out in the tenth grade, became a drug dealer, and died in a shooting by age 20. The third boy graduated high school but still struggled to find gainful employment.
“He did graduate high school, but never learned how to read,” Martinez said. “You can imagine it’s really, really tough to find a job with a meaningful income not knowing how to read.”
By age 24, that boy was in prison for drug crimes.
Of the four boys, Martinez was the only one to find success—a fact he attributed to his parents working multiple jobs to pay for him to attend a private school.
“I got an opportunity to succeed in life because of that choice that my parents were able to make,” Martinez said. “I always wonder what my friends that are dead or in prison or overdosed, what would have happened to their life if they would have had an opportunity like I did? Could they have gone to college? Could they have been meaningful members of society that had a chance to succeed? I think that they could have. And if this bill helps one kid, I’m in.”
Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, said a child with autism, Jordan, was adopted out of the state’s foster care system and benefited from the scholarship law.
“Through the Equal Opportunity Scholarship fund, Jordan’s mom was able to find him a school that better fits his needs and is, according to her, challenging him to make sure that he meets his full potential,” Caldwell said.
Another child, Riley, was born with a heart defect, kidney defect, brain abnormalities, epilepsy, and cognitive behavioral delays.
“Doctors told Riley’s parents she would never walk,” Caldwell said. “But because of the teachers in her school and the work they did, she’s walking today. And it was only through the Equal Opportunity Scholarship fund that they had that choice.”
Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, an Elgin Republican who was a public-school teacher, said a one-size-fits-all approach to students does not serve them well.
“When I was a first-year teacher in a very small, rural school, I had a homeless student. I had a student who had spent her junior year in a drug-rehabilitation program. I had a student who was asked to not come back to CareerTech at Christmastime. I had a student who was a 19-year-old sophomore who had gone to live with an aunt because he had been involved with a gang,” Hasenbeck said.
“And I went back my second year. And throughout my educational career, I learned that there aren’t any resources for kids like that available to public-school students. So, the entire time of my career I spent trying to find ways that we could fill the gaps for those particular students.”
She said SB 1080 would help similar students across Oklahoma.
“This is going to be good for those kids who fall between the gaps,” Hasenbeck said.
Critics of the program dismissed Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship success stories.
“This isn’t some heart-string-tugging commercial where we all believe that we’re helping that ‘one impoverished family in that next town over from us,’” said Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “By and large, this is a discount coupon, mostly for the upper class.”
Other critics suggested there is little reason to expect students like those described by Martinez to emerge from public school prepared for life.
“The problem, it’s not education,” said Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City. “It is kids who are raised by wolves.”
Critics also argued tax-credit scholarships drain money from public schools.
Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, called the scholarship program a “Trojan horse” that will “unleash a surprise attack within the walls of our public schools.” He said tax credits associated with S.B. 1080 “will lower the amount of tax dollars that our state collects at a time when our public schools cannot afford it.”
“This is the first step to privatization of public ed,” said Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater.
But supporters said those arguments are fatally flawed.
“For that rationale to hold true, every tax credit and every tax deduction that someone takes is taking money away from our public schools,” Caldwell said.
“It means that every deduction you take for donating to your church or to the local animal shelter, what you’re really doing is just ripping the money right out of the hands of the kids in your district. But is that true? Does that logic even make sense? Of course not.”
Many who criticized S.B. 1080 voted earlier this year for legislation to provide $20 million in subsidies to film productions, and House Democrats endorsed a budget plan that included $24 million for an “earned income tax credit.”
Echols noted lawmakers have provided enormous funding increases to public schools in recent years, including a record appropriation this year.
“During my five years as floor leader, we have added over three-quarters of a billion dollars into funding for public education,” Echols said.
Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, said that increase “falls far short of what we should have been doing.”
“I don’t think anybody, any of us, deserves a pat on the back for what we’ve done for education in Oklahoma,” Goodwin said.
The bill now proceeds to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has long endorsed expansion of the program.
Final passage was hailed by groups that have fought to increase school-choice options for all Oklahomans.
“Decades from now, when today’s children are adults, thousands of them will look back and know they were able to achieve great things thanks to the education made possible by lawmakers with this vote today,” said Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
“A quality education opens the door to a better life for all children, but especially those whose current circumstances are mired in challenges few of us can comprehend. When those families are limited to only one local public school, many of those children wind up short-changed by a system that does not cater to their needs. By increasing school choice for those families, we are making Oklahoma a better place — a place where families from all backgrounds have the opportunity to achieve and thrive.”
Jennifer Carter, Oklahoma Senior Advisor for the American Federation for Children, said S.B. 1080 is “the largest expansion of a school choice tax credit program in the country so far this year and makes clear Oklahoma puts kids and their parents first.”
“This expansion means thousands of additional children will be able to access the school that best fits their needs and makes possible the opportunities they deserve,” Carter said.
NOTE: This story is reposted with permission. It first appeared here. Ray Carter is director of the Center for Independent Journalism. His work is supported through the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Carter’s reports often appear at the CapitolBeatOK.com webiste, and at City-Sentinel.com, as well as in the pages of The City Sentinel newspaper. Both news organizations are independent, non-partisan and locally-owned.