Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act becomes law in Oklahoma

Pat McGuigan
Oklahoma City – Advocates for robust programs of school choice were happy with enactment of Senate Bill 1080, deemed the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.

A press release from the advocacy group Choice Matters described S.B. 1080 as “a landmark achievement for those looking to give parents more options when it comes to where and how to educate their children.”

Robert Ruiz, executive director of Choice Matters, said in comments sent to CapitolBeatOK.com, “As a parent, nothing is more important than ensuring your kids are receiving a great education. And nothing is more dispiriting than feeling trapped in a school that isn’t a good fit for your child. Equal Opportunity Scholarships help to ensure that parents and children are never trapped; regardless of their income level, they can still pursue options and find the best fit. That is especially important for children with special needs or children coping with bullying.

“Our lawmakers took a stand today on behalf of giving parents and students more choices and more pathways to success. We are grateful to see that kind of leadership and positive vision at the State Capitol,” Ruiz concluded

Jonathan Small of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs was effusive after the proposal passed the Legislature and Governor Stitt affixed his signature. In a statement, Small said, “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.

“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.

“This is a great day for kids thanks to the leadership of Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, Gov. Kevin Stitt, House Speaker Charles McCall, and the many lawmakers who supported this bill.”

As for Treat, his statement stressed, “The Equal Opportunity Scholarship program provides tax credits to donors who voluntarily donate funds to support education. The grants can be used by private schools to support low-income families and by public schools for innovation or classroom support.”

Senate Bill 1080 increases the amount of tax credits within the program to $50 million, with half for private school students and half for public school students. Treat said the program already “has benefited homeless children and low-income families. The changes we are making to the program will help deserving students receive a high-quality education they otherwise could not afford.

The Oklahoma City Republican said, “The changes also will generate more funding for public schools by giving their supporters more ways to donate. This is a tremendous bill for students, families and Oklahoma education overall. I appreciate the overwhelming support of my Senate colleagues and look forward to the Oklahoma House passing the bill.” 

State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, is a persistent critic of school choice programs, although many of her urban constituents rely on them for access to better schools. She asserted, “I am increasingly disappointed the Legislature chooses to ignore the will of their constituents. Handing our tax dollars over to private schools, that have their own sources of revenue and that only a fraction of Oklahoma’s families utilize, is not equitable. The fact is that 90 percent of Oklahoma’s families choose public schools. That is where our dollars should stay.”

Sen. Hicks’s perspective was overwhelmingly rejected in the Senate on May 18, when the upper chamber gave 36-11 consent to the law (with one member not voting). In the House, the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act garnered 63-36 support (with two members not voting).

Governor Kevin Stitt enthusiastically signed the legislation into law. 
The state’s chief executive, “Over the past year, it’s become even more clear that education is not one-size-fits-all. Parents and students across Oklahoma want more options, and this program helps create more opportunities for kids to attend the school that best fits their needs.” 

A sketch of the legislation from Choice Matters rebuffed the often-repeated assertions of Hicks and other critics of S.B. 1080: “Equal Opportunity Scholarships help children in low and modest income households attend private schools. Two-thirds of Opportunity Scholarships go to students with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. 

“The average income of a scholarship recipient is $45,000 for a family of four. Over 2,500 students receive scholarship dollars each year. In addition to serving students in lower-income families, some are coping with homelessness, addiction, autism, physical disabilities, bullying and other situations which are difficult for public schools to manage.”

The group’s analysis continued, “Equal Opportunity Scholarships also help public schools. Currently, any public school district with a student population under 4,500 (there are 166 districts that meet that qualification) can apply for funds to support ‘innovative educational programs.’ For example, Chickasha public school has used funds to support robotics and STEM programs.

“Tax credits drive the success of this program, which is supported by private dollars. Donors to both public-school programs and private school scholarships receive a 50 percent tax credit on their donations (75 percent tax credit if the donor is willing to donate the same or greater amount for two consecutive years.) However, the $5 million cap had been reached in recent years, discouraging growth and future donations. S.B. 1080 raises that cap to $50 million, which will encourage more donations and more growth in the Equal Opportunity Scholarship program.”