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Controversial school voucher bill narrowly passes committee vote

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat’s school voucher bill narrowly passed a committee vote on Tuesday.

Dubbed the “Oklahoma Empowerment Act,” Senate Bill 1647 narrowly advanced from the Senate Education Committee by a vote of 8-7. The measure now progresses to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the measure would allow taxpayer dollars to follow a student to private school or home school and be used for educational items such as tutoring and transportation. It would require 10% of the accounts to be audited annually.

Every student in the state would be eligible, he said.

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Treat

Treat disagreed with labeling the measure a voucher bill, calling it instead a savings account.

Democrats peppered Treat with questions about accountability.

Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, questioned how the vendors or those receiving the funds would be vetted.

Treat said the parents would hold the institutions receiving the dollars accountable.

Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, suggested that the measure would fund strip malls and pop-up shops that have education services to render.

Treat said the measure would make education more competitive.

Hicks said she was confused as to why the measure was being offered when last session lawmakers passed a bill making it easier for students to transfer to other public schools.

Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore, said parents want different choices for a variety of reasons. Those reasons could be religious, a need for academic excellence, provisions for special needs or to avoid bullying, he said.

Treat said he was open to making changes to the bill.

“For a vast majority of the kids, the best option is going to be a local public school,” Treat said. “Many are served exceedingly well.

“But if they are not served exceedingly well, we can’t force them to stay in that system. I think it would be wrong of us as policy makers to do so.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt has expressed strong support for the measure, but House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said last week that his chamber will not hear the bill if it passes the Senate.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who is running against Stitt in the 2022 gubernatorial election, said that “Gov. Stitt’s voucher scheme is a rural school killer that will decimate funding for all children in public schools and will negatively affect every public school student across the state.”

“Simply put, vouchers are wrong for Oklahoma kids,” she said. “Schools cannot provide the high-quality education our children deserve under Stitt’s plan.”

The Senate Education Committee also passed Treat’s Senate Bill 1583, by a vote of 9-6. The measure also heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.

The measure would allow a student in a school with an F on its state grade card to go to a private school with taxpayer dollars.

Dossett said that while public schools are rated, private schools are not, which creates an unequal playing field.

The measure would allow a parent to take money away from an F school that has a report card and take it to a private school that has no report card, Dossett said.

Treat again said parents would make the ultimate determination on accountability and that the measure would give parents options.


Featured video: Governor touts business initiatives in State of the State address

Feb. 7, 2022 video. Gov. Kevin Stitt said one of his goals is 'making Oklahoma the most business-friendly state in the nation.'

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"We're not going to beat these bills by rehashing the same far-left rhetoric and playing victim," said Brittany Novotny, who founded the PAC. "We're going to defeat these bills by finding common ground with Republicans in the Legislature and helping them to see this isn't necessarily the winning issue they think it is."

Gov. Stitt's attempts to oust Executive Director Joel Kintsel over the past year have been thwarted by the commission, whose members are mostly appointed by veterans organizations.

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