Oklahoma enacts universal school choice
May 24, 2023
As part of a compromise plan involving vastly increased spending on public education, Oklahoma’s political leaders have enacted universal school choice.
House Bill 1934, which will be signed into law tomorrow by Gov. Kevin Stitt, creates a refundable income-tax credit for parents who incur private-school tuition expenses or homeschool expenses.1 Student eligibility is universal, meaning it extends to any Oklahoma resident who is “eligible to enroll in a public school in this state.” Oklahoma is the eighth state to enact universal or near-universal publicly funded school choice in the last two years.2
If this school-choice framework can be “preserved and deepened,” says longtime Oklahoma City University law professor Andrew Spiropoulos, it represents “one of the most significant social policy achievements in [Oklahoma] history.”
Success has a thousand fathers, of course, and each one deserves great credit for this policy victory. But this particular success also has one proud grandfather, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
OCPA, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, has long made the case for educational freedom. Regardless of the mechanism—we’ve argued for vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts—the goal has remained the same: Let’s empower all parents to choose the best educational options for their children.
Alas, for many years, enacting school choice was not within the Overton Window of political possibility. Not even close. Think back to OCPA’s early years and try to imagine Senate leader Stratton Taylor and House Speaker Glen Johnson sending a private-school choice bill to Gov. David Walters.
Nevertheless, our fledgling think tank persisted. Our friend Larry Reed, then-president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (and Joe Overton’s boss), even traveled from Michigan to Oklahoma to consult with our board and staff. We discussed how think tanks can shape public opinion and thus influence public policy.
Vouchers, Tax Credits, and Education Savings Accounts
Educational choice has long been one of our signature issues. (When Mid-Del superintendent Rick Cobb made reference to “school choice kingpin Brandon Dutcher,” I cheerfully added it to my bio.) Year after year—in innumerable articles, policy papers, media hits, presentations to civic groups, and more—OCPA trustees, staffers, and research fellows have argued for parental choice in education. A few examples will have to suffice.
In a 1999 article, I pointed out that civil-rights leader Martin Luther King III supports tax-credit scholarships. In a faxed response (remember fax machines?) to questions I had submitted, King told me “we must increase equal access to private education.”
“Panel to look at vouchers,” read the headline in The Daily Oklahoman on March 4, 2000. Regrettably, my fellow panelists and most of the audience members were unpersuaded by my arguments. It would be another 10 years and a thousand fathers before Oklahoma’s first voucher program, the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, was created.
In 2001, OCPA published “The Case for Choice in Schooling: Restoring Parental Control of Education.” The report called for vouchers and tax credits and its author testified at a legislative hearing at the Oklahoma state Capitol.
In 2002, OCPA called for school-choice tax credits in our book Oklahoma Policy Blueprint, which was lauded by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman as “thorough, well-informed, and highly sophisticated.” Also that year, OCPA published a report on tax-credit scholarships and worked with state Rep. Kevin Calvey to craft legislation. The bill even got a hearing in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee but did not advance. It would be another nine years and a thousand fathers before the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program was created. OCPA then proceeded to midwife a scholarship fund—Michael Carnuccio, Dave Bond, and I signed the incorporation papers—and today the Opportunity Scholarship Fund is the state’s largest organization of its kind.
Writing in The Sunday Oklahoman in 2006, I noted that policymakers in other states had wisely struck compromises—more public-school spending in exchange for more school choice—and suggested “the time has come for that sort of compromise here in Oklahoma.” Specifically, I recommended that private-school and homeschool parents receive a tax credit for educational expenses. In an article the following year, I said “a tax credit for this purpose should be refundable to those parents without the income to claim the full credit.”
In 2009 we launched the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition, with OCPA trustee Bill Price serving as chairman. We’ve held more than 150 coalition meetings.
In 2011 in The Oklahoman, I promoted the idea of an “education savings account” (ESA), the new kid on the school-choice block. We’ve championed the idea ever since. Proposed legislation in 2023 would have created an ESA worth a minimum of $3,850 per student.
In 2014 in The Oklahoman, I touted Alabama’s refundable school-choice tax credit and said Oklahoma lawmakers should likewise provide one.
For Teacher Appreciation Week in 2015, I suggested in the Tulsa World that Oklahoma’s political leaders should appreciate parents who teach their own children at home. Also that year I proposed a nonrefundable tax credit for homeschoolers and worked with national and state homeschool groups to craft legislation.3
In 2019, my colleague Trent England and I again collaborated with homeschoolers, ordering in some Chick-fil-A (of course) and sitting around an OCPA conference table working to craft nonrefundable-tax-credit legislation. The bill even cleared a House committee that year.
In 2020, writing in The Journal Record, OCPA president Jonathan Small called on state lawmakers to provide “a significant refundable tax credit to families for education expenses, helping parents pay for greater opportunities for their children.” Three years later—and fully 16 years after OCPA first called for a refundable school-choice tax credit—the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Program is now a reality.
‘Vouchers in Disguise’
Some Oklahomans have asked, is this new school-choice program a tax credit or is it a government subsidy?
In one sense, it doesn’t matter what you call it—as you can see, OCPA favors all of the above—but in truth a refundable tax credit is a hybrid of education tax credits and vouchers. “The primary legal distinction between tax credits and vouchers is that vouchers are government funds and tax credits are a taxpayer’s own money,” Adam B. Schaeffer of the Cato Institute once explained. “When a tax credit is made refundable, this distinction is eliminated.” That’s because parents receive a check (or a direct deposit) from the government when the tax-credit amount exceeds their tax bill.
“While the tax credits themselves do not constitute public funds,” adds Heritage Foundation scholar Jason Bedrick, “the ‘refundable’ credits are a public subsidy.” Indeed, it appears these public subsidies may be deposited into Oklahoma parents’ bank accounts in up-front installment payments. As Bloomberg journalist Steven Dennis has noted, “Prefunded refundable tax credit is a euphemism for voucher.” Many on the left4 and right5 have made similar observations.
Thus I had to agree when one Capitol insider wryly told me, “Our voucher identifies as a tax credit.” Considering that it was educators’ woke insanity that did so much to help move the Overton Window on school choice, the quip is perfect.
‘Funding Students, Not Systems’
In sum, Oklahoma’s political leaders, in a compromise plan which includes hefty spending hikes for public schools, have enacted universal school choice. Is there more work to be done? Yes. Eliminate the cap on the total amount of tax credits, for starters.6 But that’s a project for another day. Today we give thanks that, as Gov. Stitt put it, “we are building a foundation for funding students, not systems, in the state of Oklahoma.”
And to think just a few short months ago Oklahoma parents were hoping for a program in which the government would deposit money into their education savings accounts. Instead, it turns out the government will deposit money into their checking accounts. Parents were hoping for a per-child amount of at least $3,850; instead, it will be up to $7,500.
Understandably, many school-choice opponents are bewildered. “We don’t see the House Republicans’ education plan as a compromise,” the Stillwater News Press observed when the first round of legislation advanced in February. “It’s more like simply caving in to the whims of the wealthy school choice lobby.”
I am reminded of Harold Price, a successful businessman in my hometown of Bartlesville who asked the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a three-story headquarters building for his pipeline company. The headstrong Wright agreed to do it but suggested a 10-story tower instead. In the end, Price recalled, “we finally compromised on 19 floors.”
That’s the kind of compromise I can get behind. Universal school choice in Oklahoma. My, how the Overton Window has moved.
-  “It is the intent of the Legislature,” the legislation reads, “that parents, legal guardians, custodians, and others with legal authority over children in this state be able to choose educational services that meet the needs of their individual children. The Legislature affirms that parents and legal guardians are best suited to make choices to help children in this state reach their full potential and achieve a brighter future.” For more details, see: Ray Carter, “Education funding plan clears way for major school choice,” May 15, 2023, https://www.ocpathink.org/post/independent-journalism/education-funding-plan-clears-way-for-major-school-choice and Ray Carter, “Major school-choice bill headed to governor,” May 19, 2023, https://www.ocpathink.org/post/independent-journalism/major-school-choice-bill-headed-to-governor
-  The seven other states are West Virginia, Arizona, Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, Florida, and Indiana.
-  Many homeschoolers oppose any government funding for homeschool expenses and thus would only favor the creation of a nonrefundable tax credit. For example, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) once warned: “Beware of legislation that may seem like an educational tax credit but is really a ‘refundable tax credit.’ A regular educational tax credit reduces your total tax burden on a dollar-for-dollar basis, whereas refundable tax credits apply even if you don’t have a tax bill. Refundable tax credits are vouchers in disguise.” HSLDA president James Mason told the Washington Examiner this year: “State money invites scrutiny and invites regulation. When that comes, we think it will sweep in those who don't choose the money in addition to those who take the money. So the threat is that all homeschoolers, [if they] take the money or not, [will be] subject to increased regulation...” The organization Homeschool Oklahoma (HSOK, formerly called OCHEC) has made the same point: Any parent claiming a nonrefundable tax credit “would not be taking state funds,” but with a refundable tax credit “at some point money will exchange hands.” HSOK also opposes vouchers and ESAs, saying that “a homeschool that takes money from the state becomes a state-funded public school. If a traditional/constitutional homeschooling family takes government funding to pay for their educational expenses, they become a type of public school.” Says state Rep. Trish Ranson (D-Stillwater): “All the homeschool parents that are talking to me are saying, ‘No, we don’t want this.’ … We don’t want anything because they know that if they get state money, then there’s going to be state regulation, and they don’t want regulation—which I don’t blame them.”
Not all homeschoolers hold that view. For example, my wife and I—now in our 25th year of homeschooling with several more years to go—are among the parents of the thousands of homeschooled students in this state (I’ve seen estimates ranging from 22,866 to 40,000). We will gladly claim Oklahoma’s refundable tax credit, as will many other homeschooling parents. After all, a typical Oklahoma family of four has a total annual state-and-local tax burden of $21,014, so obviously any relief is welcome. These homeschoolers agree that, yes, “it’s important to be vigilant about making sure the government keeps its meddling hands off homeschoolers and private schools,” as political scientist Greg Forster put it. “But it’s just as important to be smart, and not undermine family-controlled education with our efforts to protect it” (Greg Forster, “School choice makes homeschoolers and private schools more safe from government—not less,” February 1, 2022, https://www.ocpathink.org/post/analysis/school-choice-makes-homeschoolers-and-private-schools-more-safe-from-government-not-less).
-  “Vouchers are any form of public payment to help parents send their children to private schools,” says the National Education Association. “They may take the form of direct government payments to parents” or “tax credits parents can take for tuition payments.”
Vouchers “this session take the form of refundable tax credits,” writes Paul Shinn for the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Technically, the legislation “gives households a tax credit as a reimbursement for expenses, but the result is the same as a direct voucher: spending public funds for private purposes.”
“Regardless of what lawmakers call various voucher programs,” says the organization Oklahoma PLAC, “any plan that diverts public funds into individuals’ hands for private or personal usage is a voucher.”
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy says state tax subsidies for private education “are essentially backdoor voucher programs … as they use the tax code to provide what amount to private school vouchers.”
Author and longtime Oklahoma teacher John Thompson says House Republicans were able to present “their tax incentives for the rich without using the word voucher” while actually managing to provide “a system worse than some other voucher bills.”
Left-wing journalist Arnold Hamilton calls Oklahoma’s refundable tax credits “Vouchers 2.0.”
University of Central Oklahoma economist Travis Roach writes: “The Speaker insists that this isn’t a voucher, but a port-a-potty by any other name still smells the same.”
State Rep. John Waldron calls Oklahoma’s refundable tax credit a “massive voucher program.”
State Rep. Trish Ranson explained during floor debate that “we’re talking about a tax credit that taxpayers can apply for on their taxes. If they do not owe the amount of money in taxes that meets the credit that they are eligible for, then they don’t have to pay taxes, and they get a check. That check is not their money. It’s not a refund. It’s not taxes that they paid. … How is that not a voucher?”
State Rep. Andy Fugate says: “If my tax bill is $500, not only do I not pay that $500, but I get another $7,000 under the Governor’s plan, and that’s not my taxpayer dollars. That’s everybody else’s taxpayer dollars.”
House minority leader Cyndi Munson said the end result is “cutting checks to families to pay for their private education that could go to future funding for public schools.” Regardless of whether one calls it a tax credit or a voucher, she said, “it does the exact same thing."
-  “The most basic distinction among school choice programs is the source of funds used to pay for private school tuition,” H. Lillian Omand explained in a Cato Institute study. “When the government makes direct payments to parents or schools, the program is generally called a ‘voucher.’ A second kind of program is a tax credit; parents or donors pay the school and reduce their state tax liability accordingly.” (Those are nonrefundable tax credits.) Omand adds: “Note that so-called refundable tax credits are really vouchers according to this source-of-funds definition. Under ‘refundable tax credits,’ many families would receive a check drawn from the state treasury because the amount of the tax credit exceeds their state or local tax bill.”
Unlike true tax credits, says Heritage Foundation scholar Jason Bedrick, “so-called ‘refundable’ credits are indistinguishable from vouchers.”
Another Cato report explained: “So‐called ‘refundable’ credits allow a negative tax balance, meaning that the state disburses public funds to the parents claiming the credit ‘refund.’ Because the parents need not have paid any taxes to qualify for the ‘refund,’ the term refundable is actually a misnomer. Refundable education tax credits are equivalent to vouchers because they entail the expenditure of government funds.”
“When is a tax credit a voucher?” asks the conservative group Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment. “When the legislature credits citizens for taxes they never paid. HB 1935 is a voucher disguised as a tax credit.”
“This bill is labeled a tax credit,” says the group Homeschool Oklahoma, “but it has the wording of a voucher.”
“This ‘tax credit’ is really a voucher,” says the Constitutional Home Educators Alliance, “because it gives people other taxpayers’ money for private education.”
-  HB 1934 isn’t perfect, Oklahoma City University law professor Andrew Spiropoulos correctly points out. “Instead of equal treatment of all families, proponents were forced to agree to both vary the level of support based on income and, worse yet, place an overall cap on the amount of the tax credit, meaning that eligible families may end up with nothing. Ominously, these limitations characterize the program as a tax break to be dispensed with in hard times instead of a permanent program of family empowerment. These flaws will require the choice coalition to stay as active as ever. It may take as much energy, effort, and determination to preserve choice as it did to enact it. The principal goal must be to swiftly build a large constituency of participating families who will condition their votes and political donations on support of the program.” Encouragingly, Gov. Kevin Stitt has said “a future Legislature can look at that if we start butting up against that cap.”