OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Senate Pro Tempore Chairman Greg Treat stressed Thursday that his Senate Bill 1647 is not a “voucher” program — it’s called the Oklahoma Empowerment Act.
Whatever its name, it’s a concept that hasn’t gained traction among rural lawmakers, House Speaker Charles McCall said, indicating the measure is unlikely to pass this year.
“It’s not a voucher plan – said Treat, speaking to members of the media during an Oklahoma Press Association legislative briefing at the State Capitol. “It’s a negative term that the people like to attribute to everything they don’t like.It’s much more like an education savings account.
Details of how the measure would be funded could be worked out as the measure progresses through the legislative process, Treat said. But he insisted the funding would not come at the expense of public schools.
“We won’t decimate public school funding, we’ll make sure it’s as strong as ever,” Treat said. “We’re going to empower parents through the Oklahoma Empowerment Act to allow the money to follow the student wherever they go” whether it’s public, traditional, charter, private or private schools. homeschooling, Treat said.
“The House was not involved in any work on this particular bill,” McCall later told the group. “I don’t think he will be heard in the House. It’s just not a priority for our members.
McCall said he understands and respects why Treat, R-Oklahoma City would introduce the bill, but every lawmaker sees things through the eyes of their own constituents.
“It’s a bit of a geographic issue,” said McCall, R-Atoka. “He’s a suburban Oklahoman, I’m a rural Oklahoman.” There aren’t many educational options in sparsely populated rural districts, McCall said.
Erika Buzzard Wright of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition said many towns in rural Oklahoma don’t have the population to maintain two gas stations or two barber shops, let alone multiple schools.
“They don’t need competition,” Wright said. “Those who benefit the most from these proposals are those who already have their children in private school and want to get a rebate on those taxes.” Nationally, the school privatization movement is championed and funded by “millionaires and billionaires,” Wright said.
Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said the legislature has done a lot to make up for years of chronic education underfunding in recent years.
“There’s still a long way to go to be able to compete, hire teachers, and have the support services for students in the states we compete with,” Hime said. “Now is not the time to redirect funds from the public education system and already underfunded students into a system that has no accountability or transparency.”
Treat’s measure would mean that about 700,000 children currently enrolled in private schools in the state would suddenly be eligible to receive thousands of state dollars, Hime said.
The schools’ funding formula — which can pay between $4,000 and $8,000 per student — is likely not enough to fund tuition at a private school, Wright said, making the plan unworkable for many. many low-income families.
Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters, said the average private school tuition in Oklahoma is much lower than many people might assume, between $6,500 and $7,500.
Ruiz said the plan could help create new schooling options, especially for low-income minority students who are disproportionately served by underperforming schools. A private school in northeast Oklahoma City had been denied a district charter twice before its founders established it as a private school. Other schools could be created to meet the special needs of Latino children who need to focus more on English as a second language, he said.
“They can make sure that the values, culture and heritage of the children are reflected in this school,” Ruiz said.
Treat said as many as 10% of those who benefit from Empowerment Act dollars would be audited each year to ensure accountability.
But the ultimate measure of accountability would be the parents, Ruiz said.
“When parents make a choice, it really transfers a lot of that responsibility to parents and that’s where it needs to be,” Ruiz said. “If that school isn’t working for that child, the parent still has the choice to make those decisions.”