Newberry-Denney opportunity scholarship advances despite Republican fissures

The state of Oklahoma seems poised to take another step toward broader options and choices in provision of educational services, as Senate Bill 969 cleared the state House today (Tuesday, April 26). 

The measure is headed to the Senate, where it passed comfortably earlier in the legislative session. If senators agree to House revisions, the bill will go to Governor Mary Fallin. 

The 64-34 advantage on the merits was stronger than many observers had expected. Defeat of the emergency provision was not a surprise, but votes on the two measures presented an interesting snapshot of underlying tensions in the House.

Voting for the measure on the merits were 62 Republicans and two Democrats, with a total of four members not voting (“excused”). Voting against the measure on the merits were four Republicans and 28 Democrats.

On the emergency clause, 58 Republicans joined one Democrat in voting yes, with eight members missing (“excused”). 

Opposed to the emergency were three Republicans and 30 Democrats. A total of eight members – seven Republicans and one Democrat – did not vote on the emergency. That is the equivalent of a “no” vote for a procedure requiring 68 affirmative votes. 

House Democrats presented comparatively less drama on the proposal, voting in “lockstep” opposition to more school choice, with two notable exceptions. State Rep. Rebecca Hamilton of Oklahoma City supported the bill on the merits, and also backed the emergency clause. Rep. Jabar Shumate of Tulsa backed the bill on the merits, but opposed the emergency.

Three Republicans who have opposed conservative policy objectives in recent votes on the merits or on emergency clauses backed S.B. 969 on the merits: John Bennett of Sallisaw, Mike Christian of Oklahoma City and Mike Ritze of Broken Arrow. On the emergency, Bennett and Christian were opposed, while Ritze “walked the vote” (officially listed as excused). 

Additional Republicans supporting on the merits, but “walking the vote” on the emergency clause, were George Faught of Muskogee, Randy Grau of Edmond and Josh Cockroft of McCloud.  Missing both votes on S.B. 969 were Rusty Farley of Hawworth, Leslie Osborn of Tulsa and John Enns of Enid. 

Two Republicans, Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City and Fred Jordan of Jenks, opposed the bill on the merits, and also opposed the emergency. Two Republicans, Skye McNiel of Bristow and Tommy Hardin of Madill, opposed the bill on the merits but supported the emergency clause. 

State Rep. Randy Terrill of Oklahoma City, who has denounced House Speaker Kris Steele throughout this session, has worked to coordinate the efforts of dissident Republicans to work with House Democrats against passage of emergency clauses. While not crippling on substantive law, the maneuvering could have implications for the budget process when it comes to agency consolidation or other changes impacting costs.
However, today Rep. Terrill supported S.B. 969 on the merits and then backed the emergency provision. 

Advocating for the bill during questions and debate were the House sponsor, Rep. Lee Denney of Cushing, along with Reps. Harold Wright of Weatherford, Charles Ortega of Altus, Corey Holland of Marlow, Earl Sears of Bartlesville, Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City and Rebecca Hamilton of Oklahoma City. 

House Minority Leader Scott Inman, a Del City Democrat, argued against the bill.

After today’s vote, in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, state Rep. Emily Virgin, a Norman Democrat, said, “Make no mistake about it, bills like the one heard today are all part of an effort to unravel our public education system – by labeling our public schools as failing while consistently underfunding them, by telling parents that public schools are not good and charter schools are the answer, and by advancing charter schools, which is a thinly veiled effort to privatize education under the guise of providing ‘choice’.”.

Reps. Steve Kouplen of Beggs and Mike Brown of Tahlequah joined Virgin in denouncing the advance of the school choice agenda. 

Revisions were made to S.B. 969 in the House committee process which are designed to finance grants for new programs in rural public schools. Intact provisions in the bill empower parents of children in failing public schools to access the education provider of their choice through scholarship-granting organizations financed by private individuals and corporations. 

Sen. Dan Newberry of Tulsa, who has worked on the measure for the past two years, told CapitolBeatOK early this month he believed the House Committee changes were “very positive and helpful. They are certainly acceptable amendments.” 

Points made in the original Senate debate might recur in the closing round. During last month’s consideration of S.B. 969, state Sen. Jim Wilson of Tahlequah asserted in questions and in final debate the measure was “a voucher system.” Newberry quarreled with that, saying it is a scholarship program allowing individuals and businesses to support a program to create scholarship funds to give children attending schools that are failing an option to access better schools, including private institutions.

Wilson contended the fund would divert money from the general revenue fund, and said the scholarships were not true philanthropy. Newberrry disagreed, saying his bill was intended to encourage individuals who create opportunity for children who would not otherwise have it to access better schooling.

In closing debate in that first go-round, Wilson said the bill was “really just a bad precedent. This is just a voucher program.” He encouraged a no vote.

Sen. Newberry countered those assertions and said the measure would give hope to children presently attending schools that are not succeeding.

Deemed the “Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act,” S.B. 969 would allow individuals or companies to receive a tax credit when contributing to a scholarship-granting organization. 

According to a legislative staff release sent to CapitolBeatOK today, 

“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. 

Overall, the bill provides for a maximum of $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.”