COMMENTARY: In D.C., 'jolly' bipartisan coalition throws a life preserver to school choice -- in Oklahoma, Republicans help sink it
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Published: 21-Mar-2015



OKLAHOMA CITY – State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, a key leader in the Republican-run Senate, pressed hard for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) this year. But thanks to several fellow Republicans, his best efforts fell short.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is part of a bi-partisan group chiding the Obama Administration for trying to kill a school choice program benefiting children in the nation's capital.

Along with state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, Jolley advocates Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), similar to a program found constitutional in Arizona.

Jolley's Senate Bill 609 would allow students to receive partial value for tax-financed education resources, in support of their education in any school of parental (or guardian) choice. Use of the resources would be limited to state-reviewed institutions or vendors. The idea, as with all school choice programs, is to have resources follow children, rather than institutions or bureaucracies.

After he reluctantly pulled S.B. 609 from the 2015 legislative calendar, Sen. Jolley said “Education savings accounts would enable more Oklahoma parents to make that choice for their child by allowing them to use part of his or her state education funding to pursue the schooling that best suits a student's needs. 

Public schools would actually see an increase in per-pupil revenue as a result of this plan. Other states already offer this option for education, and I am convinced this would enhance our efforts to improve education levels in our state.”

This month, the Jolley-Nelson bill cleared a Senate committee in close vote. However, last month in the House, Common Education Committee chair Ann Coody, R-Lawton, led opposition to Nelson's version of the bill. Her response to questions from CapitolBeatOK can be studied here.

Before the House panel's vote, appeals to Coody to support Jolley, her fellow Republican, or at least to allow the party's stated position on choice to get a floor vote, were unsuccessful.

Coody and four other members of the GOP joined Democrats on her committee in opposition to ESAs. Other Republicans opposing education choice included Jadine Nollan of Sand Springs, Todd Thomsen of Ada, Dennis Casey of Morrison, and Katie Henke of Tulsa.

Despite the support of most Republicans – including Speaker of the House Jeffrey Hickman, R-Fairview, and Speaker Pro Temp Lee Denney, R-Cushing,
– the House version failed in committee on a tie vote.

Procedurally, the bill can be looked at again during the 2016 legislative session.

This marked the second year in a row that major school choice legislation was pulled from the calendar at the Republican-controlled Legislature due to opposition within the GOP.

At the national level, four members of the U.S. Senate lamented President Barack Obama's effort to end the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In addition to Lankford, signatories were Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Tim Scott, R-South Carolina.

In their letter, the quarter detailed shared concerns over Obama's decision. 

Their joint letter read:

“We were disappointed to learn your budget proposal cut funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and terminated future funding for this life-changing program.

“Public schools in the District of Columbia are some of the worst in the nation. The high school four-year graduation rate in the district is only 59 percent. Only half of the district’s public school children are proficient in reading. This track record is in spite of spending almost $30,000 per pupil.

“The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program provides scholarships for children of low-income households in the district to attend schools that their families otherwise could never possibly afford. “Because the enrollment wait list for D.C. Public Charter Schools totals more than 22,000 applicants, disadvantaged Washington students have limited options in the district’s public schools. For many Washington students, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is the only hope for an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

“The average household income for students receiving scholarships under the program is below $21,000 – in a city with some of the highest costs of living in the nation. Two-thirds of these children come from families that receive food stamps and/or aid from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Ninety-seven percent of the children who benefit from this program are African American, Hispanic and/or Latino.

“Despite the socioeconomic challenges facing these students, 90 percent of students who earn scholarships through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program graduate from high school, and almost all of those students go on to attend college. The program’s success and popularity among Washington families is reflected in the more than 3,600 applications received for the 2014-2015 school year. Simply stated, this program works.

“We therefore urge you to support the full, continuous funding of a program that is proven to transform the lives of thousands of Washington children, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

The four senators together reflect the diversity of support for school choice in modern America. 

Put one way, the group includes two while males (Lankford and Johnson), a black male (Scott) and a female Democrat (Feinstein). 

Put another way, the group includes a Jew (Feinstein), a Southern Baptist (Lankford), a Lutheran (Johnson) and an Evangelical (Scott).

Put still another way, these four represent the future, and a bi-partisan answer to what many have called the most important civil rights issue of the Twenty-First Century.

Which side of the argument over school choice will Oklahoma's Republican elected officials choose? 

An inclusive future, or a monopoly-driven past?

NOTE: Pat McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK.com, publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, and a public charter school teacher.

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