A trio of school choice bills has accelerated Oklahoma’s progress toward expanding educational options for state students.
With strong official backing from Republican legislative leaders, proposals to increase the number of charter schools and create charter-like “empowered” schools or school zones have won widespread support from lawmakers. A bill to provide tax-backed tuition scholarships to special-needs students also has earned bipartisan approval in both houses of the legislature.
Most Sooners Want Choice
“It is a little heavier traffic on the school choice front than we’re used to,” said Brandon Dutcher, vice president of policy for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
Dutcher noted the challenge of advancing broader educational choice programs in a state where 95 percent of students are enrolled in traditional public schools. A 2008 Friedman Foundation survey of Oklahoma residents, however, found only 19 percent would opt for a traditional public school program if given the choice.
“Obviously there’s strong support for other educational options,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations for the Foundation for Educational Choice (formerly known as the Friedman Foundation).
More Public School Options
The two public school choice bills have won broad support in the legislature. Cosponsored by the chairs of the state House and Senate education committees, Senate Bill 2330 would authorize individual public schools or groups of schools to seek waivers from state laws and local regulations.
Under the law, proposals approved by the local and state boards of education would grant one or more “empowered” schools to innovate in areas such as curriculum, assessments, school governance, and teacher hiring and compensation.
SB 2330 passed both chambers easily, by a vote of 40-6 in the senate and 66-31 in the house.
Another bill, Senate Bill 1862, would lift the cap of three new charter schools per year, allow the establishment of charters outside Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties, and mandate the State Department of Education to publish a list of suitable buildings available for charter schools to buy or lease.
Currently there are just 17 charter schools operating in the state.
“Charters was a big step a decade ago,” Dutcher noted. “Back then, vouchers and tax credits would have been unthinkable.”
Bill Addresses Special-Needs
A proposal to establish such a voucher program is now in play. House Bill 3393, authored by Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City), would award public funds to students with a wide range of special needs—from mild learning disabilities to severe physical or mental incapacity—who choose to enroll in a private school. The bill closely resembles Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, which after 10 years in operation serves more than 20,000 students.
Nelson said he believes the bill would ease the plight of Oklahoma’s special-needs students, who have few educational options under existing laws.
“If you’re not quite happy, you have to take legal action. What a goofy system,” he said. “Just give everybody some flexibility, and they’ll be happier.”
The scholarship offers the lesser amount of the receiving school’s tuition or the student’s allocation in the state funding formula. Approximately 95,000 of the state’s nearly 650,000 public school students would be eligible for such a scholarship through enrollment in an Individual Education Plan (IEP).
Nelson says he believes a greater proportion of the state’s residents living in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas initially would exercise their new options under his proposal. “Those folks would have more choices and be able to take advantage of the scholarship than some in the rural areas,” he said.
HB 3393 overwhelmingly passed the state House, 78-19, and was approved 27-17 by the Senate in April. A conference committee has been convened to iron out differences between the two approved versions.
A fourth piece of Oklahoma school choice legislation, Senate Bill 1922, has stalled in the state Senate. The proposal would provide tax credits for individual and corporate contributions to scholarship programs enabling low-income students to attend private schools.
Hiner said she expects the tax credit idea to gain support because of the focused and persistent work of grassroots and legislative supporters.
“They are completely centered on trying to do the right things for the kids of Oklahoma so they can have opportunities to grow and learn,” she said.
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.
Friedman Foundation, “Oklahoma’s Opinion on K-12 Education and School Choice,” June 2008: http://www.edchoice.org/research/ShowResearchItem.do?id=10096