Controversy surrounding Oklahoma’s school-choice bill

Published: Mar. 17, 2022 at 8:42 PM CDT
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LAWTON, Okla. (KSWO) - The controversial Senate Bill 1647 is making its way through the Oklahoma legislature and would move state funding for public school students into a private account for parents.

Parents could then choose to use that money to put their kids in a private school.

“We’re 49th in educational outcomes,” Secretary of Education Ryan Walters said. “The way we’ve been doing things has not produced the education system we want for our kids.”

Walters said the Oklahoma Empowerment Act aims to change that. Public schools across the state receive a minimum $3,600 per student from the education budget.

If Senate Bill 1647 were to pass, that money would be given to parents that they could put toward a private school education if they choose.

“Parents know what’s best for the kids and to sit here and say, ‘No, I’m not gonna trust a parent to make the right decision for their kids,’ it’s not true,” Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt said.

Opponents of the bill argue its passage would be detrimental to public schools that rely on state dollars to operate.

“I don’t think we need to take from the majority to give to the minority, we need to take care of the whole state,” Susan Boyd, a teacher at Tulsa Public Schools, said.

“If they take the money that’s used as a whole and divide it up for private students, then all the students in rural school would get less money,” Teri Wilson, of Jay Public Schools, said.

Lawton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Hime agrees, saying 60 to 70% of their budget comes from state and federal sources.

“We are a poor school property tax wise, our local wealth is low,” Hime said. “We’re more reliant on state dollars.”

However, when talking to Governor Stitt on the bill’s impact to rural schools, he said there’s only one reason teachers should be against it.

“If you’re in a failing school, you have a lot to be worried about,” Stitt said. “Why are we standing in the way of a parent that’s deciding to take their kid to a school that’s a better fit for them or one that has better outcomes?”

Secretary Walters agrees, saying parents who are happy with their child’s education in a public school will stay there.

“This is an option for parents,” Walters said. “For our schools that are doing a great job, parents wouldn’t want to leave that school.”

Even if southwest Oklahoma parents wanted to send their kids to a private school, there aren’t many options to choose from.

In Comanche County, there are two Pre-K - 12th grade private schools. Jackson County has one private school that services Pre-K - 8th grade.

Every other county in southwest Oklahoma does not have a private school, so, even if parents wanted to take advantage of the voucher program, they’d be in for a drive depending how far out of Lawton or Altus they live.

Accountability is also on the minds of opponents of the bill.

Superintendent Hime said the dollars LPS receives from the state come with strings attached.

There are standards public schools must abide by, which Governor Stitt said wouldn’t necessarily be the case for private schools.

“Those are some details they’re working out,” Stitt said. “Of course we want standardized testing, but we aren’t going to put parameters around parents choices.”

Malinda Perez is a public school teacher in southwest Oklahoma, but chose to put her son in a private school. While she’s more than happy with the education her son is getting, and the bill’s passage would greatly help her cover tuition, she said why not keep that money to better the public school system.

“It would benefit me to have a portion of our tuition offset with a state allocation, but I feel that would further cut in to the resources OK has to allocate to public schools,” Perez said. “And they’re the ones who need it because they serve a greater number of students.”

On the other hand, Gary Martin, who also sends his kids to a local private school, supports the bill, welcoming more students to challenge each other.

”I think a little competition breeds excellence,” said Martin. “If you don’t have competition you kind of get complacency.”

Then the issue of private schools accommodating a potential influx of students comes up, which Secretary Walters said the need for expansion would need to be made at the local level.

“That would have to be a decision that the school would make,” Walters said. “They’d look at how many folks are coming in, do they want to expand their options, do they want to invest in expansion, would another school similar to that one pop up to take some of those students on.”

Speaker Charles McCall event went on record saying this would not even be heard in the House, but Secretary Walters said more conversation will be needed to reach a solution.

“There’s a disagreement on this bill at this point, but I’m hopeful in being able to work with the Senate, House and the Governor, but we’re going to work together and keep talking about how to improve education for our kids,” Walters said.

Many questions still surround how the Oklahoma Empowerment Act would play out in the state. The bill is currently in the Senate and a vote could come next week.

From there it would move to the House.

Earlier this week, the bill’s author, Senator Greg Treat filed an amendment that would ensure that none of the funding for students using these empowerment accounts would be taken out of the school funding formula or from other school funds.

This would ensure that school districts would not be negatively impacted financially because of the program.

The amendment should be heard during the bill’s next presentation, expected to come next week.

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