Opportunity Scholarship Act passes Oklahoma state Senate

The Oklahoma state Senate today (Wednesday, March 16) approved Senate Bill 969, the tuition scholarship bill sponsored by Senator Dan Newberry of Tulsa. Discussion of the matter was low-key, with Newberry and state Sen. Jim Wilson of Tahlequah, engaging in respectful exchanges for a few minutes before the measure gained passage on a vote of 30-14.
The measure approved today was a floor substitute, triggering a question from Wilson. Newberry explained an earlier version of the measure had included a 65% credit on state income taxes for donors to scholarship funds, with detailed provisions on how that would effect federal tax liability. Sen. Newberry said after input from the Oklahoma Tax Commission, the provisions were simplified and the credit decreased to 50%.
Wilson 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 that would 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 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, Sen. Wilson said the bill was “really just a bad precedent. This is just a voucher program.” He encouraged a no vote.
Sen. Newberry countered Wilson’s 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. Limited to a 50% credit annually, amounts would be for contributions up to $1,000 per individual or $2,000 for married couples who file jointly. Corporate filers would receive a 50% credit up to $100,000.
Scholarships could be used to cover tuition at accredited private schools, and costs of fees and transportation. Scholarships-granting organizations would be required to spend at least 90% of receipts on scholarships. The total scholarship pool would be limited to $5 million a year, with half each received for individual filers and half for corporate filers.
Children allowed to access the scholarships will come from families with less than 300 percent of the requirement for the free and reduced lunch program; and/or any child in a district that has been indentified as needing improvement under No Child Left Behind. Scholarships could be for amounts up to $5,000 or 80% of the per-pupil expenditure in the public school district where a student resides, whichever total is greater.
A spokesman for Oklahoma Policy Solutions told CapitolBeatOK, “For every student who transfers out of a public school to attend a private school under this program, more money is available for the students who remain. This is because taking a student out of public school removes the cost of educating that student.”
Voting yes on S.B. 969 were 29 Republicans and one Democrat. The sole Democrat backing the bill was Tulsa’s Judy Eason McIntyre. McIntyre had supported similar legislation in 2008.
In addition to Sen. Newberry, other Republicans for the measure included Cliff Aldridge of Midwest City, Mark Allen of Spiro, Patrick Anderson of Enid, Don Barrington of Lawton, Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Cliff Branan of Oklahoma City, Josh Brecheen of Coalgate, Rick Brinkley of Owasso, Bill Brown of Broken Arrow, Harry Coates of Seminole, Brian Crain of Tulsa, Kim David of Porter, Eddie Fields of Wynona, John Ford of Bartlesville, Jim Halligan of Stillwater, David Holt of Oklahoma City, Rob Johnson of Kingfisher, Clark Jolley of Edmond, Justice, Mike Mazzei of Tulsa, Myers, Jonathan Nichol of Norman, Steve Russell of Oklahoma City, Ralph Shortey of Oklahoma City, Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, Anthony Sykes of Moore and Greg Treat of Oklahoma City.
Voting against the bill were two Republicans. In opposition was one of the top ranking members of the majority party, Mike Schulz of Altus, as well as Bryce Marlatt of Woodward.
In addition to Wilson, Democrats against the bill included Roger Ballenger of Okmulgee, Randy Bass of Lawton, Sean Burrage of Claremore, Jerry Ellis of Valliant, Earl Garrison of Muskogee, Charlie Laster of Shawnee, Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne, Susan Paddack of Ada, Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, John Sparks of Norman, and Charles Wyrick of Fairland.
Not voting on the bill were three Democrats – Tom Adelson of Tulsa, Tom Ivester of Elk City and Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City — and one Republican – Jim Reynolds of Oklahoma City.
Rice and Adelson supported similar legislation in 2008 but did not back the measure this time.