Oklahoma Fails to Move ESA Bills Forward

Published March 17, 2017

ESAs grant families access to some of the money allocated for their child’s public education, to spend on educational alternatives such as private school tuition, tutoring, and homeschool textbooks. Oklahoma currently has two education choice programs: a tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students or students in low-performing schools and the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship, a private school voucher program for special-needs students.

State Sens. Kyle Loveless (R-Oklahoma City) and Rob Standridge (R-Norman) both proposed ESA bills during the spring 2017 legislative session. Loveless presented three nearly identical bills—Senate Bills 395, 396, and 399—collectively called the “Oklahoma Parental Empowerment Act of 2017,” to create ESAs in the state. Each bill offered different student eligibility requirements.

None of Loveless’ bills advanced this session.

Standridge’s Senate Bill 560 would have established an ESA for any student enrolled in an Oklahoma public school the first 100 days of the prior school year, except children of legislators. Establishment of ESAs under the bill would have been subject to the Oklahoma Legislature approving pay raises for public school teachers.

The Senate Education Committee voted 9 to 7 to approve SB 560 in late February. In March, Standridge pulled his bill from consideration.

“I don’t want to pass it by a thin margin,” Standridge said to senators in an appropriations committee meeting, according to a report by OklahomaWatch.org. “I want us to feel good about this.”

Accusations of Inconsistency, Hypocrisy

Standridge says those who challenge the legality of ESA programs spending public money at private and religious institutions ignore existing precedent.

“The [legitimacy] of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship has already been decided by the [Oklahoma] Supreme Court, when it ruled unanimously that it could be used at a private school,” Standridge said. “My ESA is essentially modeled after the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship.”

Loveless says critics have shifting standards when it comes to ESAs.

“Oklahoma’s Promise [Scholarship] helps working-class families afford expensive [higher] education,” Loveless said. “No one seems to have an issue with these public funds being used to pay for private or religious-based schools, but when it comes to common education, the education establishment has a problem. I think this highlights the hypocrisy.” 

Money ‘a Large Motivator’

Both senators’ bills would have allocated to the public school district a percentage of the money tied to each child who leaves a public school. Loveless says such provisions are meant to appease current public school employees.

“In a perfect world, this money would be included in the empowerment account,” said Loveless. “However, leaving a percentage of the money with the local school district is a compromise that’s been tried in the past to make reform more acceptable to the entrenched education establishment. Unfortunately, money is a large motivator to maintain the status quo.”

A ‘Moral Imperative’

Loveless says his bills would grant families flexibility and motivate schools to improve.

“These bills [would] allow families to erase the imaginary lines dictating which school their child is required to attend,” Loveless said. “By creating competition, schools will fight to attract students by providing the best educational results.”

Standridge says every child deserves the same educational opportunities.

“The moral imperative is for the children,” Standridge said. “We need to agree that every child needs an opportunity. This surpasses all the money and [teacher pay] raises. It goes beyond that. We fulfill the moral imperative of education for everyone.”

Jenni White ([email protected]) writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.