Deborah Sheckels (left) looks on as Alexis Hord, a beneficiary of Oklahoma's tax-credit scholarship program, tells her story at a recent meeting of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition. The coalition, formed in 2009 and chaired by OCPA trustee Bill Price, meets monthly in the Advance Center for Free Enterprise on the OCPA campus.
Earlier this year, after state lawmakers advanced bills to raise a cap on the amount of tax credits that can be issued for private donations to scholarship-granting organizations, one teacher union official dismissed the program as “benefiting an elite few.”
The life experiences of tax-credit-scholarship beneficiary Alexis Hord, age 15, are as far from that stereotype as humanly possible.
“Because of my dad, I was constantly around gang members, affiliations, and illegal weapon, drug, and sex trafficking,” Hord told attendees at a Thursday meeting of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition in Oklahoma City. “I slacked in schools, grades, and attendance.”
Growing up, Hord’s father was an addict and his influence on her was especially negative.
“My dad was abusive to my mom sexually, physically, and mentally,” Hord said. “He beat my mom for the last time and was sent to jail and charged for harassment. He left my mom with herniated disks, broken ribs, and a swollen face.”
Hord said her father also “physically abused me” and she endured years “of what was so far a living hell.”
The repercussions of that abuse put Hord on a downward spiral of theft, meth and heroin use, suicidal thoughts, and social isolation. She grew to believe she was “unloved, unwanted, and hated." In the summer of 2017, she was arrested on two counts.
“My mom was running out of options,” Hord said. “No facility would take me because I was either too much to handle or my mom couldn’t even get close to affording it because she was a single parent with no help.”
That’s where a school-choice program and The Cross Christian Academy in rural northeast Oklahoma came in.
Under the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, a tax credit is provided to businesses and individuals who donate to groups giving private-school scholarships. Scholarship recipients must be low-income or have a learning disability.
The Cross Christian Academy is among the schools participating in the tax-credit program. Located near the rural town of Disney in northeast Oklahoma, the school operates year-round and is fully accredited, serving students who face some of life’s most challenging circumstances and are going through the therapeutic programs offered by Teen Challenge, a Christian ministry.
By giving Hord the opportunity to attend The Cross Christian Academy, she indicated the tax-credit scholarship program was life-altering.
“I was accepted on a big scholarship from Opportunity Scholarship funding,” Hord said. “So within six months I moved to three different schools and the only one that never gave up on me, no matter how much trouble or chaos I created, was The Cross Christian Academy.”
In 20 months, Hord was able to kick her addictions and gain life skills, and she found faith after previously being taught by her father than each person is a god unto himself.
Before attending The Cross Christian Academy at age 14, Hord said the only book she had ever read had just 10 words in it.
“I never read a book,” Hord said. “Never.”
Today, she is a voracious reader of books that run hundreds of pages in length, not hundreds of words.
“The tables have turned,” Hord said, “and I am creating a new beginning.”
Rachel Nicholson, dean of students for The Cross Christian Academy, said Hord is typical of the students who attend the school. Many arrive at least one year behind in credits.
“Empowering them to believe the things that they never thought that they could do is big,” Nicholson said. “Because if we can keep these kids in schools, if we can keep them believing they can be successful, then they won’t fulfill the negative prophecy that was put upon their life before, the negative stuff that they have heard.”
Deborah Sheckels, girls' program director at Teen Challenge of Oklahoma, said 100 percent of the school’s students have dealt with issues like addiction, gangs, behavior problems, and more.
“This is not your typical student,” Sheckels said. “This would never be for a student that is just wanting to go to a school.”
Yet, despite the fact the school serves a distinctive niche, demand for slots at the school far exceeds what the school can supply today.
“We have calls, sometimes daily, that we just can’t afford to have them come in,” Nicholson said. “That’s why the Opportunity Scholarship Fund is so important for us, because we hate–just as much as you guys do–the fact that we have to turn people away.”
Senate Bill 407, which would raise the cap on the tax-credit program, has passed out of the Senate and awaits a vote in House committee next week. Supporters say its passage will allow schools like The Cross Christian Academy to aid more children like Hord. Nicholson indicated raising the cap could have outsized positive benefits for Oklahoma that last for years.
“We want to be able to serve as many as we can. We want to be able to encourage as many as we can. We want to be able to make citizens of our country where they can function and make it a better place,” Nicholson said. “So we use the Opportunity Scholarship Fund for students that just have nowhere else to go.”