Parents and school officials say a tax credit program that encourages private donations to scholarship-granting organizations has been, literally, life-saving and an answer to prayer, and urged lawmakers to expand the program.
“Government spending for the sake of government spending, it has no value,” said state Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. “Government spending for the sake of increasing the lives and well-being of children in the state of Oklahoma, that’s where value comes in.”
The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act provides a tax credit to businesses and individuals who donate to organizations that provide private-school scholarships. The program also provides tax credits to those who donate to public-school programs.
Current law caps the amount of tax credits that can be issued, and the cap has been reached in recent years. Senate Bill 407, by Sen. Dave Rader and Echols, would raise the cap to allow $15 million in tax credits for both parts of the program for a total of $30 million in tax credits annually.
It is estimated SB 407 will allow up to 5,000 more children to benefit from privately-funded scholarships and inject up to $27 million in private funding into traditional public schools.
“To raise that cap means that more kids can be helped,” said Rader, R-Tulsa.
Several parents and school officials urged lawmakers to support the bill at a Monday press conference held by the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, a scholarship-granting organization.
Joe Don Fennell is executive director of Teen Recovery Solutions, which operates Mission Academy High School in Oklahoma City, a “sober school” serving students with addiction problems.
“I am not overstating the fact when I say that OSF dollars save lives,” Fennell said. “The world that I play in is a world of addiction, and we all just have to read the paper to see the deadly seriousness of addiction.”
Fennell said Mission Academy has “never turned a family away” because of an inability to pay. Up to 80 percent of students at the school are there as the result of a tax-credit scholarship. Many arrive at age 17 performing academically at the level of a high-school freshman.
“Because of the services we wrap around what we do, we generally get them to their scheduled graduation time,” Fennell said.
LaKesha Peoples said her son Kaleb had developmental delays and she began searching for the proper school for him when he was in first grade. She worried about his future.
“Our young men tend to give up at a certain point,” Peoples said. “And as a parent, I cannot allow that to happen.”
Despite changing schools and being placed on an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) in public school, Kaleb still did not receive “the proper resources that he truly needed,” she said.
“We tried tutoring. We tried everything that I could possibly think of as well as doing things at home by myself,” Peoples said.
Eventually, her son had an opportunity to attend Crossover Preparatory Academy in Tulsa. Peoples said she “prayed through it. I kept saying, ‘God, you’ve got to show me. You’ve got to help us. You’ve got to get Kaleb where he can learn, thrive, and be a functioning young man in society.’”
Kaleb started attending Crossover in the fall of last year.
“In January, thanks be to God, through academic coaches, smaller class sizes, I got a message from his academic coach—brings tears to my eyes—that my son had As and Bs, on his grade level. And that was amazing to me,” Peoples said. “For a private school to be able to do what the other schools cannot was a huge benefit to us. And to be able to have that scholarship for him to be able to go was a huge benefit. I would not have been able to afford to get him there.”
Debbie Wilson’s granddaughter, Madelyne, was able to attend Tulsa Hope Academy thanks to a tax-credit scholarship. The girl’s father had been killed and her mother “was moving her from place to place.”
“She got kind of lost,” Wilson said. “Her brothers went into a home and she was somewhere where we didn’t even know where she was at.”
Much like Peoples, Wilson worried about her granddaughter’s long-term future.
“I had been feeling that she was lost, having emotional problems and things that were going on in her life,” Wilson said. “I was just going to a dinner one night, and I just said, ‘If there is anyone there, God, that can help me with Madelyn, I would really appreciate that.’ And I go there, and there he is: Rob Sellers.”
Thanks to Sellers, executive director of the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, Wilson learned about Tulsa Hope Academy.
“It was just a beautiful thing,” Wilson said. “From day one she loved the school. She felt safe. She was in a place where she could learn. She was behind and they got her caught up. It’s just been an amazing place.”
This is Madelyn’s second year at Tulsa Hope Academy and she is scheduled to graduate in May.
“If she hadn’t been there, I don’t think she would be in that position,” Wilson said. “I can’t tell you how wonderful this school has been. It’s turned her life around.”
Peoples said she looks at her son “knowing that had it not been for that scholarship, he would still be struggling today. So I am thankful for the scholarships that have been afforded and pray that they would continue on, to not only help Kaleb, continue to help Kaleb, but help other young men as well through Crossover Prep Academy.”