Opportunity Scholarship bill advances from Senate Committee

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 18-Feb-2010

A measure to provide increased choice in education passed a key Senate committee this week. The bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee 9-5 on Tuesday (Feb. 16).

State Sen. Dan Newberry of Tulsa is sponsor of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act. Backing his bill in committee were fellow Republicans Cliff Aldridge of Midwest City, John Ford of Bartlesville, Mike Johnson of Kingfisher, Clark Jolley of Edmond, Jonathan Nichols of Norman, Jim Reynolds of Oklahoma City and Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, joined by Democrats Tom Adelson of Tulsa and Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City.

Opposing were Democrats Johnnie Crutchfield of Ardmore, Jay Paul Gumm of Durant, Tom Ivester of Elk City, John Sparks of Norman and Jim Wilson of Tahlequah.

Newberry told CapitolBeatOK, “It was a great pleasure to have the debate and discussion about this important bill, a proposal so important to the education of our children. I am optimistic because both President Pro Tem Coffee and Speaker Benge have indicated their strong support. I am optimistic it will pass both Houses and go to the governor for his signature.”

Sen. Newberry announced he would make some modifications, revising the percentage benefit going to donors for Scholarship Granting Organizations, and focusing benefits for students attending schools on the “needs improvement” list.

The panel’s vote capped two days of advocacy for the concept embodied in the legislation, which allows tax credits of up to $1,000 a year for individuals and $2,000 a year for couples for contributions to eligible scholarship-granting organizations. Scholarships could go to families making up to 300% of “the income standard used to qualify for a free or reduced school lunch.” Grants for special-needs students also would be allowed.

Scholarships could only be used at accredited schools with accountability, and with standards to conduct criminal background checks of teachers and staff. A version of the concept, advanced in 2008 by former state Sen. James Williamson of Tulsa, passed the Senate but not the House. Supporting the push by Williamson, a Republican, was fellow Tulsan state Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre, a Democrat.

Also on Tuesday, an early morning press conference at St. John Christian Heritage Academy in east Oklahoma City attracted Sen. Newberry, Democrat state Rep. Jabar Shumate of Tulsa, former Oklahoma City public schools Superintendent Betty Mason (now superintendent of St. John’s Academy), Pastor M.L. Jemison of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, former U.S. Attorney Bill Price, and Patrick Byrne of Overstock.com, one of America’s leading school choice advocates.

Newberry said, “Our schools are underperforming. Families and children need more options. I am proud that Rep. Shumate is standing with me. The proposal will permit private individuals and corporations to give. The bill envisions $10 million in FY 2011 for students at schools such as St. John Christian Heritage Academy.”

Newberry continued, “A program like this will provide new hope to students living in poverty. Our goal is to give the children most in need the greatest possible opportunity to work their way to a brighter future. Oklahomans are not afraid of hard work, and we’re not afraid to try new things, and to go and learn how to do things better. This opportunity scholarship program is a way to move the American dream forward.”

In his comments to reporters at the St John’s press event, Rep. Shumate said, “When you empower families to make decisions for themselves you will always get better results. Our systems, including in education, sometimes seem almost punitive in the impact they have on people, on students. This legislation will, plain and simple, allow schools like this one to grow and get stronger.

“Something I’ve learned is that a lot of kids in our system are lost. My legislative district has perhaps the lowest performing school in the state. My people, those whom I represent, are tired and frustrated. In elementary education, they want choices like we have in higher education. They want choices. When they have those choices, all of our schools and our students will improve. This will help create an expectation of excellence in education.”

At the press conference moderated by Price, Patrick Byrne said, “All of the things we fight about in our country, all the divisions we face, are really just aspects of education policy debates. He continued: “There are fundamental differences in the life prospects of an 18-year-old who has a bucketful of skills, and one who has a thimbleful of skills.”

Byrne continued, “The stories you hear in the area of school choice are incredibly heart warming, but also heart-breaking. Stories that never get told, of children who never get out of a failing system, are the most heart-breaking. We need leaders who have the courage to understand the problem in American education, which is a lack of choice and therefore of quality, and to act upon the problem.

“Until the consumer, meaning parents and the child, has a choice, there will not be improvement. We won’t get better schools until we have choice.”

Byrne, who lives in Utah, said, “Here in Oklahoma, a good bill should pass the House and the Senate, but the governor might not sign it. I know that Oklahoma’s governor wants to do the right thing. There is a lot of talk about education but sometimes that talk is less about kids and more about the system as it is. If the focus is put on the children, this bill will pass.”

Betty Mason stated her support for Newberry’s legislation succinctly: “This bill is good for children. This is a very exciting concept to me. As the economy has slipped more and more of the children we serve and their families have faced serious challenges to stay in our school. We have had some enroll and then they had to leave because the parents lost jobs.”

Mason elaborated, “At our school we do all that we can for as little money as possible, and Pastor Jemison is wonderful in the support he gives us, but there is not enough money available right now to serve these children who need the best we can give them.”

Pastor Jemison reflected: “For more than 90 years this congregation has cared for the education of our children. We are glad to be part of this and want to support it.” He added, “We don’t always have the resources we need. We are eager to partner with anyone who takes the education of children seriously.”

Mason told reporters her academy’s graduates go to Oklahoma City’s leading middle schools, including Heritage Hall, Casady, Classen School of Advanced Studies, Northeast Academy, Millwood and various public charter schools, including Independence Charter Middle School.”

Mason said enrollment at St. John’s is about 100, but has been as high as 119 students. She said, “We could service 200 students right now if the resources for parents were available.”

She concluded, “All of the principals in this area know and are familiar with our program. They are welcoming to our students and know what a great preparation they get for further education. Our test results always exceed the national average. The parents have responded to the excellence they find here. They volunteer and support us wonderfully. They are invested in this school with their time and their money.”

On Monday, Byrne, who is chairman of the Foundation for Educational Choice, met with a bipartisan group of legislators and spoke at an evening reception hosted at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs on Lincoln Boulevard.  After Tuesday’s press conference, he spoke to a joint meeting of the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs. Byrne then went to Tulsa for further meetings boosting the school choice concept.