Ray Carter | January 21, 2022
Senate leader seeks school choice for all families
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat has filed legislation that would provide school-choice opportunities to all Oklahoma families, allowing parents to use state funds to pay for their children to attend any school, including private schools.
If signed into law, the program would be one of the most robust school-choice programs in the nation and make Oklahoma a national leader in educational opportunity.
“Every child deserves the chance for a quality education that fits their unique needs, regardless of their ZIP code,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “We’ve already empowered the parents of children with disabilities with this opportunity through the very successful Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program. It’s time we give all parents and all students in Oklahoma that same opportunity for success.”
Senate Bill 1647, by Treat, declares, “It is the intent of the Legislature that parents, legal guardians, and others with legal authority over children in this state be able to seek educational services that meet the needs of their individual children by directing education dollars to follow each child. The Legislature affirms that parents and legal guardians are best suited to make decisions to help children in this state reach their full potential and achieve a brighter future.”
SB 1647 would create the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program. Under the program, any student eligible to enroll in a public school would be eligible for an OEA, which could be used to pay for a range of education services, including private-school tuition.
Treat said Oklahoma’s future is tied to the success of its education system, and the state cannot afford to limit opportunities for families.
“A quality education is essential to each child’s success, and the overall success and growth of our state,” Treat said. “No child should be trapped in a failing school or a school that cannot meet their unique educational needs simply because of where his or her home is located. Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts will bring generational change to families across Oklahoma by giving all parents the freedom to do what’s best for their child.”
The amount deposited into an Oklahoma Empowerment Account would be tied to the per-pupil amount of state funding that would be spent on that same child in a public school under the existing state formula. The amount spent per child in public schools varies based on individual factors, including poverty and special-needs status.
An OEA would not be counted as taxable income for participating families, just as money spent educating the same child in public school is not considered taxable income.
The program would be overseen by the Office of the State Treasurer, which would be required to maintain a system “for parents to publicly rate, review, and share information about education service providers.” The treasurer’s office would randomly audit 10 percent of OEAs each year to ensure compliance with program guidelines, and individuals found to have used funds illegally would lose their accounts and could have their case referred to the office of the state attorney general. Schools that violate state law would also face sanctions.
Under the program, any private school that accepts payment through an OEA would “not be considered an agent of the state or federal government” and would “not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum to accept payments from an Oklahoma Empowerment Account.”
That provision ensures private religious schools will not be forced to abandon their Christian identity to serve students who use an OEA. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, previously tried to bar Christian schools from serving students served through the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program. The LNH program allows parents of children with special needs, as well as foster or adoptive parents, to use state funds for private school tuition.
Under Hofmeister, the State Department of Education advanced regulations that prohibited Christian schools from adhering to traditional Christian teachings on sexuality or requiring that staff be professing Christians if those schools accepted LNH students. The office of the attorney general concluded Hofmeister’s regulation violated state law and the regulations were eventually repealed.
Parents, Civic Leaders Praise School-Choice Effort
Several parents spoke in favor of Treat’s bill in a video distributed online.
“My youngest suffers from ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), so I want to send her to a private school where she could get more individualized learning,” said Liz Miller, an Edmond mother. “I’m a single mom, and right now I can’t afford that.”
“We’re the parent,” said Kelly Shank, a Norman mother. “We should be the one to decide where our children go and where our money goes.”
Other officials separately issued releases praising Treat’s plan.
“The biggest barrier to education freedom is income,” said Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters, an Oklahoma non-profit dedicated to increasing education options for parents. “High-income parents can choose the school that is right for their children, either by moving to the ZIP codes with the best public schools, by sending their children to private school, or by supplementing their children’s education with tutoring and other resources. We believe that parents of every income level in every ZIP code should be able to make these same choices and offer their children these same opportunities.
“Pro Tem Treat has put forward a bold vision to give every Oklahoma parent the freedom and the ability to find the best education possible for their children,” Ruiz continued. “We encourage his colleagues in both the Senate and the House to stand with parents and support this proposal.”
Jennifer Johnson, a Skiatook mother who helped start Parent Voice Oklahoma, an advocacy organization supporting efforts that include parent empowerment, school choice, and educational freedom, also praised the proposed legislation.
“Parents have realized that the balance of power in public education has tilted towards unelected bureaucrats and top-down control,” Johnson said. “Putting parents in charge of their own education tax dollars puts them back in the driver’s seat where they belong. This is the ultimate form of local control and parent empowerment. Thank you, Senator Treat, for giving parents a voice in our kids’ education.”
Treat’s bill also drew praise from a range of civic leaders and public-interest groups.
The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, and Most Rev. David Konderla, Bishop of Tulsa, issued a joint statement in support of Treat’s legislation.
“The Oklahoma Empowerment Act will give parents the ability to send their children to the schools that best serve their educational needs, which is tremendously important for their future success and well-being,” the two Oklahoma Catholic leaders said. “This legislation is an important step as we continue to work toward a more student-focused educational system in Oklahoma.”
Other officials voiced similar praise.
“For Oklahoma to become a state of true opportunity for all, we must provide a quality education to every child. But that can only happen when parents are able to choose from a range of options based on their child’s unique needs,” said Larry Parman, chairman of the board of trustees for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. “In contrast, the one-size-fits-all approach of the current education system in Oklahoma leaves too many children behind.
“Those of us on the OCPA board are civic leaders, business owners, and most of all parents and grandparents,” Parman continued. “We know there is no issue more important to families and Oklahoma’s future progress than improving our state’s education outcomes. By fighting to maximize educational opportunity for all Oklahoma families, Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat has taken a bold stand for families that deserves applause from all Oklahomans.”
“The COVID-era has made it obvious that our system of public education is not responsive to parental needs or input, even on matters as important as school closures, virtual learning, and curricula. All across the country, parents are fighting back and demanding more control over how their kids are being taught, who is teaching them, and what they are learning,” said American Federation for Children-Oklahoma Senior Advisor Jennifer Carter. “The creation of Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts will ensure that all parents have real options for their children when it comes to education. That, in turn, will force schools to listen to parents and to ensure they are meeting the needs of the families they are supposed to serve, rather than simply ignoring them at the behest of unions and special interests. Our thanks go out to Pro Tem Treat for his support of parental rights and education freedom. We are excited to help make his bold vision a new reality for Oklahoma parents and families.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.