Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat said this week the Senate is prepared to increase the cap on Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program, throwing his support behind a proposal highlighted by Gov. Kevin Stitt in his State of the State address.
“Where there are kids that lack opportunity, my heart pains for them,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “We need to make sure they are not forgotten.”
The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act provides a tax credit for donations to private scholarship-granting organizations. Scholarships funded by the program go primarily to low-income children or those with special needs.
However, a cap on the amount of tax credits that can be issued has limited the program, and demand is now outpacing the program’s capacity.
Senate Bill 407, by Sen. Dave Rader and Rep. Jon Echols, would raise the cap on the tax-credit program from $5 million to $30 million to encourage more private donations to education and also incentivize donations to traditional public school programs. Half the tax credits would support children served by scholarship-granting entities, while the other $15 million in credits would support programs in traditional public schools.
If the proposed maximum of $15 million in tax credits were issued for the public-school side of the program, Echols, R-Oklahoma City, has said the program will inject up to $27 million in private funding into traditional public schools.
In his recent State of the State address, Stitt urged lawmakers to raise the cap on the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.
“Increasing the tax credit cap will provide additional incentives for donors, resulting in more public-school grants and private-school scholarships,” Stitt said.
President Donald Trump has also endorsed the concept, calling for passage of a federal version of the tax-credit scholarship program during his recent State of the Union address.
Polling has shown 60 percent of Oklahomans support raising the cap.
However, some activists have come out against the measure, including the Oklahoma Education Association and Alberto Morejon, who runs the “Oklahoma Teachers-The Time is Now” Facebook group. Both OEA and Morejon were active in 2018’s teacher walkouts. Earlier this year, Morejon called for the ouster of up to 35 Republican lawmakers, including 15 senators and 20 House lawmakers. The lawmakers targeted by Morejon include many Republicans who voted for 2018 tax increases, multiple teacher pay raises, and increased school funding. Morejon’s target list also included numerous “teacher caucus” lawmakers who are former teachers, school board members or administrators, or are married to school employees.
Treat said critics’ attacks on the tax-credit scholarship program ignore the huge focus lawmakers have placed on traditional public schools in recent years.
“People forget that we have invested an additional $630 million over the last two years into public education,” Treat said. “And our commitment to public education and continuing to advance the cause of public education is unwavered.”
Treat noted the Senate passed an earlier version of SB 407 in the 2019 legislative session, and predicted the measure would receive similar Senate support this year.
“The bottom line is we want to make sure every Oklahoma child, regardless of zip code or household income, has access to a quality education,” Treat said. “And our public schools do an amazing job educating most Oklahomans. And there are some kids that are stuck in situations, through no fault of their own, that we want to make sure that they have the best opportunity of succeeding they can. And I think that’s what’s driving Opportunity Scholarship.”