School Choice Measures Are Back, in a Big Way

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One of the most hotly debated education issues — school choice — is again on the agenda of the state Legislature.

Three, nearly identical bills filed Thursday by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, seek to create an education savings account system; Loveless is calling each bill the “Oklahoma Parental Empowerment Act of 2017.”

Unlike traditional vouchers, which can only be applied to tuition, an education savings account allows families to choose from a list of qualifying expenses beyond tuition to include textbooks, tutoring, online courses and extracurricular activities. A fourth bill by Loveless would expand a program providing tax credits for donations to pay for private-school scholarships.

Critics of education savings accounts and other forms of school choice say such programs threaten to dismantle public education by siphoning money from district schools — and charter schools as well — and channeling it to private schools, often religious ones and sometimes schools run by for-profit companies.

Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, proposed a plan very similar to Loveless’ with an key difference: it would only go into effect if the Legislature passes a raise for teachers.

A Democratic leader, Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, also introduced a bill that would create education savings accounts, but the money would not flow to private schools.

Loveless could not be reached for comment Thursday. In an op-ed article for The Oklahoman on Sunday, he wrote, “Many are concerned that allowing families to make these decisions for themselves will cause chaos to the status quo. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. The current system isn’t cutting it. We have too many school districts, too many superintendents, too much bureaucracy and not enough freedom. “

Gov. Mary Fallin supports education savings accounts, and in 2016 urged the Legislature to pass an education savings account bill for her to sign. The bill was not approved.

The introduction of school-choice bills was anticipated this legislative session, but now comes after the election of Republican Donald Trump as president. His nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a major backer of school choice measures and could push policies and funding that help fuel some states’ expansion of those programs.

Loveless’ proposals vary in terms of who would be eligible for the education savings accounts.

Under Senate Bill 395, any student eligible for pre-K and students from kindergarten through 12th grade who were enrolled in public school for the first 100 days of the prior school year could apply.

SB 396 maintains the prior public school enrollment qualification but adds that students’ resident school district must be in a county with a population of at least 50,000 and the parents’ income must be less than $250,000.

SB 399 limits eligibility to students whose school district has adopted a four-day week schedule.

The amount of funds deposited into each account would be 90 percent of the student’s state aid amount, although the state treasurer could retain 3 percent for administering the program.

The 90 percent figure differs from the proposal Loveless outlined in his op-ed article.

“I am proposing legislation that allows qualified families to move their child from a public school and take up to 75 percent of the student’s funding with them,” he wrote. “This funding could then be used to help offset the cost of a private school, tutors, home-school supplies or other specified expenses — all while allowing the local district to retain 25 percent of the funds for a student they no longer provide services to.”

Under all three of Loveless’ proposals:

>The number of participating students would be capped at 1 percent of all public school students each year.

>Applicants would be chosen first-come, first-serve.

>Eligible expenses would include online curriculum, private school tuition, educational services from a public school district (including a charter school) outside the student’s district, extracurricular activities, textbooks, tutoring, testing for college entrance exams, college tuition and fees for concurrent enrollment, technology center school fees and tuition for concurrent enrollment and advanced placement test fees.

Standridge’s proposal, SB 560, has similar components but contains a twist: children of current legislators would be ineligible. Standridge said he added the provision because he has school-aged children and he didn’t want the bill to appear self-serving. The provision, as well as one that caps participation at 1 percent of total students, would sunset after 10 years.

The proposal would vary students’ fund amounts based on their annual household income, with low-income students receiving 90 percent of their state aid amount, a middle category receiving 60 percent and a high income category receiving 30 percent.

States are increasingly allowing tax dollars to flow to private schools through a variety of school-choice programs, but most are limited to students with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Of the five states that have education savings accounts (Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee), only Nevada’s is universal, with 96 percent of students eligible.

Oklahoma currently has two school-choice programs that involve private schools. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, which gives students with special-needs vouchers to attend private school, and the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship, which offers state income tax credits for contributions to scholarship granting organizations that award the scholarships to private school students.

SB 413, also authored by Loveless, would expand the latter program by raising the tax credits from 75 percent to 100 percent in 2018 for taxpayers who commit to give the same amount the subsequent year.

The other education savings account bill, SB 461, offered by Democratic Leader Sparks, would make district and charter school students eligible for accounts worth up to $2,000 a year. The funds could be spent on online curriculum, educational services from a public school, extracurricular activities, textbooks, uniforms, tutoring, technology, supplies, college entrance exams and concurrent enrollment.