A divisive school-choice proposal that would create state-funded education savings accounts allowing students to attend private schools is off the legislative agenda, at least for now.
Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, pulled Senate Bill 560 from consideration on Wednesday, which appears to eliminate the possibility of school vouchers becoming law this session.
The move was a bit of a surprise. Five senators had signed on as co-authors, and Standridge had collected letters of support from political groups and religious leaders.
Up against the committee deadline, though, Standridge felt he didn’t have the votes.
“I don’t want to pass it by a thin margin,” Standridge told senators in an appropriations committee meeting Wednesday morning. “I want us to feel good about this.”
The bill had squeaked through the education committee Feb. 20 by a vote of 9 to 7, then went to the appropriations committee.
Senate Pro Tempore Mike Schulz, R-Altus, said although he hadn’t talked to Standridge, tabling the bill given the uncertainty of its passage could be seen as a strategic move.
“If a bill fails in committee, it’s dead on final action, and, by Senate rule, that idea can’t be brought up again for the two years run of Legislature,” Schulz said.
An education savings account – or education scholarship account, as SB 560 called it – gives parents a portion of the state funding used to educate their child, and the parents can spend the money on private school tuition or other qualifying expenses. Critics of education savings accounts and other forms of school choice say such programs siphon money from district schools, hurting public education, and channel it to private schools, often religious ones.
Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Aurora Lora, in a written statement, urged senators to reject the proposal because it would compound budget cuts that public schools have already endured.
“Vouchers are not the answer to improving educational outcomes for all students, especially in the current budget crisis,” she wrote.
The Oklahoma State School Boards Association also opposed the measure.
“I appreciate the Senate for not moving forward with a divisive bill that distracts from the most important issues facing Oklahoma’s nearly 700,000 public school students: a historic teacher shortage and severe budget cuts,” Executive Director Shawn Hime said.
Standridge, however, said he’s not giving up, and like-minded legislators have encouraged him to reintroduce education savings accounts through another avenue, such as in the budget negotiation process. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings,” he said.
Standridge’s proposal would have varied students’ fund amounts based on their families’ household income, and the total number of participants would have been capped at 1 percent of all public school students.
Based on those parameters and others, Senate staff estimated public schools could see an estimated net loss of $16 million the first year. More than $5 million would have remained in the school funding formula for 7,000 students who were no longer in public school.
The School Boards Association ran its own fiscal analysis, finding that the proposal would divert from public schools up to $30 million in the first year and $1.6 billion over a decade.
Standridge said the plan was meant to benefit low-income, inner-city students in failing schools.
“This is not intended for a wealthy kid’s private school,” he said. “This is a program for a school like Cristo Rey, or Positive Tomorrows. A school that has private money that they leverage against this money.”
Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, filed three similar bills related to education savings accounts this session, but Standridge’s bill is the only one that advanced. On Wednesday, Loveless said he was disappointed the issue appeared to fizzle out, despite strong early momentum.
“Oklahomans support school choice, and for whatever reason, it just didn’t move forward,” Loveless said.
Groups that issued letters of support for Standridge’s bill include the Oklahoma Republican Party, Choice Matters for Kids, Americans for Prosperity, Wallbuilders, the State Chamber of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Federation for Children, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Oklahoma Educated Workforce Initiative, Oklahoma Faith Leaders, Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School and The Academy of Classical Christian Studies.
Five states have education savings accounts: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee.
Reporter Trevor Brown contributed to this story.