Members of a state House committee have narrowly approved legislation that would allow students at Oklahoma’s worst public schools to receive state scholarship funding to attend private schools.
Opponents said those students should not be allowed such options and argued school-funding increases are more important than parental control, voting against the bill even though it would also provide a substantial increase in state funding to failing public schools.
But supporters said the bill would address children with some of the most pressing needs in Oklahoma.
“I’m trying to help the kid that I meet on the doorstep that tells me he fights every day—because if he doesn’t fight every day, he’s going to get picked on,” said Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. “I’m trying to help the kid that I meet on the doorstep—these are real stories, by the way—that tells me he’s contemplating suicide because he cannot find a way to fit in in his school.”
House Bill 2673, by Echols, would provide a “transfer allowance” to students who attend a public school given an F grade on state report cards for three consecutive years, which lawmakers referred to informally as “3F” schools. The transfer allowance funds could then be used to pay for private-school tuition.
The amount of the transfer allowance would be based on the normal per-pupil funding allocated for a child, or the cost of private-school tuition, whichever is less.
The bill would not take effect for at least four years, because no state report card will be issued this year and a school would have to receive an F for three consecutive years before students qualify for the transfer allowance.
In addition to giving students funding for private school, HB 2673 would also boost state funding to the “3F” school by providing that school with 110 percent of the normal per-pupil allotment. That funding increase would be provided even if no child uses a transfer allowance to leave.
One lawmaker suggested that funding increase could create unintended perverse incentives.
“This does redirect more funds in the funding formula,” said Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow. “A greater piece of the pie will go to failing school districts. And so my question is how do we make sure we’re not incentivizing that?”
Others argued for even greater funding increases in poor-performing schools and against allowing students an easy option to leave for private school.
“Wouldn’t you agree that we would be better served to solve this problem by not running away from it or allowing people to run away from their neighborhood schools, but providing the supports that they need so those schools can be what every child needs?” said Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman.
If HB 2673 becomes law and fuels a mass exodus from a school, Echols said that would be a sign of massive parental dissatisfaction with that school.
“What if we opened this up, and immediately 25 percent of the community decides to flee?” Echols said. “Now, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But if somebody does think that’s going to happen, that is the reason you break your green button voting for this, because the community is telling you they don’t want to be there.”
Some opponents suggested private schools should be subject to increased state regulation if they accept students who receive transfer-allowance funding. Supporters countered that parents are better equipped to determine if a school is providing a quality education to a child, and also warned that excessive regulation of private schools would be counterproductive.
“If we’re trying to make private schools just like public schools and have the same exact requirements across the board, then you’ve really defeated the purpose of having a choice,” said Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid. “And choosing from an option of one usually doesn’t yield you a very good choice.”
HB 2673 passed the House Common Education Committee on an 8-7 vote. Those voting in favor were all Republicans, while the opponents included all Democrats on the committee and four Republicans.