OKLAHOMA CITY — As Gov. Kevin Stitt renews his push for universal school vouchers, Republican lawmakers remain at a stalemate on the controversial issue.
Although school choice proponents say the political dynamics have changed at the Capitol since last year, many GOP lawmakers still fiercely oppose allowing taxpayer dollars to go toward a child’s private or home school education through school vouchers.
But vouchers won’t be the only policy option on the table this year.
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House Republicans are expected to unveil an education plan that would expand school choice options in Oklahoma without vouchers.
Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said the details are still being worked out, but once the plan is complete, House Republicans are unlikely to support other school choice proposals.
“This is our deal. This is the only deal,” he said.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, recently reiterated his opposition to school vouchers. Early on in last year’s legislative session, McCall insisted his chamber wouldn’t hear a controversial voucher bill introduced in the upper chamber.
After previously expressing concerns that vouchers could hurt rural districts, McCall said Thursday the House remains uninterested in hearing bills similar to the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, a universal voucher bill that failed in the Senate last year.
“The House is very pro-education,” McCall said. “We are always exploring and working on policies that would increase parental choice. … But we’re looking for a policy that’s going to work everywhere.”
Stitt, Walters push school choice
Stitt wants to set aside $130 million this year for education savings accounts, also known as school vouchers. The governor and State Superintendent Ryan Walters campaigned on expanding school choice in Oklahoma.
Walters has said he wants to implement the most expansive school choice program in the nation. Allowing taxpayer dollars to follow the student to whatever school they choose is key, he said.
“Every single child in the state of Oklahoma should have every option available to them,” Walters said in an interview. “That’s public school options. That’s private school options. That’s homeschooling and public charters.
“It has to be the ability for a mom and dad to make a decision, and for all of the money that is paid in for their child’s education to follow them with that decision.”
Walters said vouchers aren’t the only way to ensure taxpayer dollars follow the student. There can be different mechanisms to make that happen, he said.
But he opposes any carve outs based on geography or other factors. In other words, he envisions a school choice program that affords all students the same opportunities.
Rep. Rhonda Baker, chairwoman of the House Common Education Committee, expressed concerns that vouchers don’t allow for financial oversight of taxpayer dollars.
Oklahoma’s state auditor and inspector has said giving taxpayer dollars to a private entity opens the door for corruption, Baker said.
“When you have got public dollars going to a private entity, there is such a problem with transparency,” Baker said. “We have to answer to our taxpayers. You can’t answer to the taxpayers when you’re giving public dollars to a private entity and you don’t know exactly how that’s being spent.”
A mandate from voters?
Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, expressed confidence that legislative support for school vouchers has grown in the past year.
Daniels introduced legislation this year that would allow parents to create an account for their child with the State Treasurer’s Office to receive funds equal to what a public school district would receive to educate that student. Parents could then use that money to homeschool their child or send them to a private school.
To offset the cost of the vouchers, Daniels proposes appropriating an additional $275 million to the state funding formula.
She rejected the notion that vouchers aren’t transparent. Her Senate Bill 822 requires 10% of all Education Freedom Accounts to be audited each year. The state would shut down any accounts with misspent funds, she said.
More than ever before, parents are demanding more options to get their children the best education possible, Daniels said.
In the November election, Oklahoma voters last year delivered a mandate on school choice that’s likely to sway legislators, she said.
“The margins of victory for both the governor and the superintendent of education who ran on strong school choice platforms and won handily, I think, sent a signal to the Legislature that it really is time to address this issue in a serious and substantive way,” Daniels said.
Stitt made similar comments in his State of the State speech, saying “parents spoke loud and clear at the ballot box.”
November’s election didn’t change Republican Sen. Dewayne Pemberton’s mind on school vouchers. The former public school teacher, coach and principal from Muskogee said he still opposes vouchers because they would take hundreds of millions of dollars away from public schools.
But with eight new Republican senators in the chamber, Pemberton thinks voucher proponents will have enough votes to send a bill to the House this year.
“If we voted today, I would say it would probably pass,” he said.
But Pemberton said he has faith that the House will reject any voucher proposals.
He also pushed back on the notion that voters issued a mandate on school choice.
“The election of the governor and (Superintendent) Walters had nothing to do with vouchers,” Pemberton said. “It was strictly about the red wave and straight-ticket Republican voting. So, when they jump up and say they have a mandate, that’s not true.”
Tulsa-area state legislators and how to contact them