Oklahoma lawmakers reject plan to use state money for homeschooling and private schools | News

OKLAHOMA CITY — A bipartisan group of Oklahoma senators has rejected a plan that would have transferred $128 million in public funds to families of children who choose not to attend public schools.

The vote came early Thursday morning, just after midnight.

Critics described the measure as a voucher system with little oversight and accountability. They also argued that private and home-schooling organizations didn’t want the measure, which likely would have led to increased government oversight and done little to help rural school districts.

Supporters, who included Governor Kevin Stitt and Senate Pro Tem Chairman Greg Treat, announced Senate Bill 1647 as an effort to expand school choice for children, who they say are trapped in failing public schools.

The senators spoke of parents in urban districts working three jobs just to send their children to private schools. They shared stories of struggling and dangerous urban school districts and spoke of families who want access to private schools but whose income levels put them out of reach.

The bill itself is now dead, though lawmakers may bring back similar language later in the session.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, kept repeating that he and his chamber will not hear any legislation on bonds or college savings accounts. Many rural lawmakers and their constituents also opposed the plan.

A senator said Wednesday that people had sent him thousands of emails urging him to support or reject the plan, which would have created Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts and required state funding per student to follow. students when they are not attending public school.

“This bill is a bill that I believe in passionately,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the bill’s author. “This is a bill designed to give school choice to children and their parents.”

Under this measure, families could use the funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring services, textbooks, curriculum, technology devices, musical instruments, school uniforms, tests university admission fees, tuition fees for extracurricular programs and therapies. Students enrolled in public school districts and charter and magnetic schools are not eligible.

Students could have accessed thousands of these funds if their total household income did not exceed 300% of the income standard used to qualify for a free or reduced price lunch. According to the federal government, a family of four must not earn more than $51,338 before taxes to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Treat said he believed such a bill would create a competitive environment, with competition for public money driving school excellence.

He said he set aside $128 million in one-time funding to pay for the program in its first year, and no money will be taken from state aid.

But before the vote, he even admitted he was uncertain whether the measure would have enough support to win his own chamber.

State Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, said most parents in his northeast district of Oklahoma City tell him lawmakers can give them as many vouchers as they want, but that they will stay on the kitchen table because there are so many other disparities that keep them from getting to those places “you call better schools”.

“They want me to help them improve their schools,” Young said. “Why are we taking funds away from them when we can put those funds into our schools, the schools that are close enough for them to walk and bring their kids so they can get the kind of education that they need. ?”

He said when lawmakers start taking money away from public schools, they start making things worse in the communities that need the most help.

“Please stop this madness,” he said. “Let’s start seeing what needs to be done and what needs to happen and put our funding and focus on the school system – the public school system that works for us, that has worked for most of us.”

State Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, said his wife is homeschooling their two children.

“Homeschoolers don’t want that,” he said. “A lot of private educational institutions don’t want that either because, as a wise man once said, ‘With shackles come shackles.'”

Hamilton said there was no oversight built into the bill and lobbyists presented the bill as if there were no strings attached.

“Well, that’s not possible,” he said. “We cannot take our people’s money for the purpose of using it for constitutionally mandated government purposes and then turn around and give it away as if we were a benevolent Santa Claus. This is not good stewardship.

State Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said for $128 million, Oklahoma taxpayers want to know Oklahomaians are well-educated, and unless lawmakers set standards and higher accountability measures, there is no guarantee that will happen.

“We can’t be a Top 10 state with school funding programs designed to get less success for more money,” she said. “We are passing a bill where we expect to get less for more.”

But Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, said the state should continue to pump billions of dollars into the public education system that will still educate the vast majority of children. But in doing so, she urged her colleagues to allow a tiny bit of innovation and competition.

“I ask you to stop and think about the individual families in Oklahoma who see this as having the potential to bring a better outcome for their child, which (would) then bring a better future for their entire family, for the future of this child and this. the child’s family,” Daniels said.

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