OKLAHOMA CITY — A bipartisan group of Oklahoma senators rejected a plan that would have shifted $128 million in public funds to families of children who choose not to attend public schools. The vote came late Wednesday night, just before midnight.
Critics described the measure as a voucher scheme that came with little oversight and accountability. They also contended that private and homeschool organizations didn’t want the measure that would have likely led to increased governmental oversight and done little to help rural school districts.
Supporters, which included Gov. Kevin Stitt and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, heralded Senate Bill 1647 as an effort to expand school choice for children who they say are trapped in failing public schools.. Senators spoke of parents in urban districts who work three jobs just to send their children to private schools. They shared stories of struggling and dangerous urban school districts and spoke of families who want access to private schools but whose income levels leave them out of reach.
The bill itself is now dead, though lawmakers could bring similar language back later in the session.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, has continued to reiterate that he and his chamber will not hear any legislation about vouchers or Education Savings Accounts. The plan also faced strong opposition from many rural House lawmakers and their constituents.
One senator said Wednesday that he had received thousands of emails from people urging him to support or reject the plan, which would have created Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts and required per-pupil state funding to follow students when they don’t attend public school.
“This bill is a bill that I passionately believe in,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the bill’s author. “It is a bill designed to give opportunity of school choice for kids and their parents.”
Under the measure, families could use the funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring services, textbooks, curriculum, technological devices, musical instruments, school uniforms, college admission tests, tuition for after-school programs and therapies. Students enrolled in public school districts and charter and magnet schools are not eligible.
Students could have accessed thousands in the funds if their total household income did not exceed 300% of the income standard used to qualify for a free or reduced price lunch. According to the federal government, a family of four must make no more than $51,338 before taxes to qualify for free or reduced price lunches.
Treat said he believes such a bill will create a competitive environment, with competition for public dollars driving school excellence
He said he has earmarked $128 million in one-time funding to pay for the program in its first year, and no money will be taken out of state aid.
But heading into the vote, he admitted even he wasn’t certain the measure would have enough support to win his own chamber.
State Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, said most parents in his northeast Oklahoma City district tell him that lawmakers can give them as many vouchers as they want, but they will lay on the kitchen table because there are so many other disparities that prevent them from accessing those places “that you call better schools.”
“They want me to help make their schools better,” Young said. “Why are we taking funds away from them when we can be placing those funds in our schools, the schools that are close enough that they can walk to and get their kids to so that they’ll be able to get the type of education that they need?”
He said when lawmakers start taking funds away from public schools, they start making things even worse in the communities that need the most help.
“Please stop this craziness,” he said. “Let’s begin to see what needs to be done and what needs to happen and place our funding and place our attention in the school system – the public school system that works for us, that has worked for most of us.”
State Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, said his wife homeschools both their children.
“Homeschoolers don’t want this,” he said. “Many institutions of private education don’t want this either because, as a wise man once said, ‘With the sheckles come the shackles.”
Hamilton said there was no oversight built into the bill, and lobbyists pitched the bill as if there’s no strings attached.
“Well that cannot be,” he said. “We cannot take money from our countrymen for the purpose of using it for a government constitutionally-mandated purpose, and then turn around and give it as if we’re some benevolent Santa Claus. That’s not good stewardship.”
State Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said that for $128 million Oklahoma taxpayers want to know that Oklahomans are being educated well, and unless lawmakers set higher standards and accountability measures, there’s no guarantee that will happen.
“We cannot be a Top 10 state with school funding schemes designed to get less achievement for more money,” she said. “We are passing a bill where we expect to get less for more.”
But Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, said the state should continue to pour billions of dollars into the public education system that will always educate the vast majority of children. But while doing so, she urged her colleagues to allow a tiny bit of innovation and competition.
“I ask you just stop and think of individual Oklahoma families who see this as having the potential to bring a better outcome for their child, which would then (bring) a better future for their whole family, for the future of that child and that child’s family,” Daniels said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at [email protected]