Conservatives praise passage of Opportunity Scholarship bill

Approval in the Oklahoma House of a bill creating “opportunity scholarships” to improve education and enhance school choice is being praised by a wide range of Oklahoma conservative leaders.

Leading applause for the 64-33 House vote is state Sen. Dan Newberry of Tulsa/Sand Springs, a Republican who is principal author of the “Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.” 

Concering approval for his Senate Bill 969, Newberry said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, “I’m very pleased the House passed the private scholarship bill.  This is very important to Oklahoma kids and it gives under privileged children opportunity to succeed and receive the education they deserve.”

Newberry said that the bill will save tax dollars because local school districts will experience a savings on students who are no longer enrolled in the local public school. He said the infusion of private dollars will result in a savings and benefit for all students, from both public and private schools.

Kris Steele, Speaker of the House, restated his support for school choice programs, including the new bill. In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK yesterday he said, “Giving children options and opportunities to succeed academically is one of the Legislature’s greatest responsibilities. Senate Bill 969 helps meet that responsibility by empowering students who do not have the financial means to attend schools of their choice. Overall, the bill provides children with choices they may not otherwise have had, which is a good thing for the students and their families and a good thing for education in Oklahoma.”

Rep. Lee Denney of Cushing, the House co-author for Newberry’s bill, tweaked the original provisions in an explicit effort to increase support for choice among rural legislators. She commented after yesterday’s vote, “This legislation provides an opportunity for Oklahomans to help poor children obtain a quality education. It provides a much-needed new source of education funding to benefit the students who are most at-risk.”

The bill would allow a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the amount contributed to a scholarship-granting organization up to $1,000 per person, $2,000 per couple or up to $100,000 per business entity. The total credit authorized could not exceed $1.75 million annually. 

Scholarships funded through the tax credit program would serve children from low-income families and allow them to attend private schools. The privately funded scholarships would pay up to $5,000 or 80 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in the school district where the recipient student resides. Scholarships for special needs students under the bill would cover up to $25,000.

The measure further allows the same tax credit to any taxpayer who makes a contribution to an eligible educational improvement grant organization. For any taxpayer who makes a commitment to contribute the same amount for two additional years, the credit would be equal to 75 percent of the amount of the contribution. 

Elaborating on this sketch of provisions, the bill provides for a maximum $5 million in annual credits allowed – $3.5 million would go to individual scholarships, while the remaining $1.5 million would fund grants to help rural schools in areas where private school is not an option.

“This legislation would direct more funding to rural schools to help them offer courses that are not feasible under current budget constraints,” Denney said. “This legislation will help all students who have trouble accessing high-level academic courses and instruction, whether they live in the inner city or rural Oklahoma.”

Denney contends Senate Bill 969 could direct more money to education without any true impact on state finances because of existing tax practices.

“The money going to these scholarship programs is money the state would never have received anyway since it would have been sheltered through other tax breaks already on the books,” Denney said. “By providing citizens a way to obtain the same tax breaks while also benefiting needy children in both urban and rural areas, we are maximizing the use of those dollars to benefit poor children who would otherwise be denied the education they desperately need to break the cycle of poverty and create a better life for their families.

“This bill is about helping kids and schools that don’t have the means to obtain and provide the opportunities taken for granted in other parts of our state.”

Brandon Dutcher, a leading advocate for school choice and diversity in models for delivery of educational services, applauded the advance of S.B. 969 in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK. He said, “This is a big day for educational freedom in Oklahoma. These scholarships will be nothing short of life-changing for students who are able to choose safer and better schools.”

He added, “In a month where major school-choice reforms have passed in Arizona and Indiana, it is encouraging to see Oklahoma lawmakers advance such significant reform.”

School choice programs and proposals got a major boost when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, gave a seal of constitutional approval to programs in Arizona which are similar to Newberry’s proposal. 

Three House Democrats criticized the legislation, but its prospects in the Senate – where Newberry intends to accept the changes in the bill – appear strong.