OKLAHOMA CITY — After spending much of last year on the campaign trail vowing to expand school choice options, Gov. Kevin Stitt took a victory lap Thursday by signing into law an education package that provides tax credits to families who send their children to private school.
Surrounded by more than 50 young schoolchildren, including one of his sons, Stitt gave his stamp of approval to school choice legislation and a bill that increases common education funding by more than $625 million.
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In a signing ceremony, Stitt touted what he has dubbed the “Aspire Oklahoma Plan” as a first-of-its-kind school choice initiative that he said makes private schooling an option for every family in the state.
“School choice should not just be for the rich or for those who can afford it,” he said. “Now it’s available for every single family in the state of Oklahoma.”
Stitt signed House Bill 1934, which offers families refundable tax credits of up to $7,500 for each child who attends private school. The amount of the tax credit will vary based on household income.
Home school families will be eligible for tax credits of $1,000 per child.
In the first year of the program, the private school tax credits would be capped at $150 million, and preference will be given to lower-income families. That cap will rise to $200 million and $250 million in subsequent years.
Although lawmakers have passed school choice policies in the past, this tax credit program will be Oklahoma’s biggest step toward state support of private schools.
Stitt said expanding school choice became one of his top priorities after he first was elected. The governor said he saw injecting competition into K-12 schooling as the key to making Oklahoma a top 10 state in education. The state’s Catholic Archdiocese is already looking at opening new private schools as a result of this new law, Stitt said.
Oklahoma ranks among the worst states for per-pupil funding. It’s unclear how this new funding for common education will improve Oklahoma’s rankings nationally.
How will the tax credits work? Who will qualify for teacher pay raises? The Tulsa World answers your questions.
Democrats and public school advocates have likened the tax credits to private school vouchers and said the new program will funnel state funds away from public schools that serve 95% of Oklahoma students.
“Instead of $700 million to subsidize private schools, we could put that money into the funding formula to provide more money going directly to the classroom to support students and to provide pay raises for support employees like our bus drivers, teacher’s aides and food service workers,” House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, said in a statement.
Stitt also touted the record public education investments within the Aspire package.
The plan earmarks $625 million in new, recurring revenue for common education that will be distributed through the state’s school funding formula and the Redbud Fund, which helps districts that receive below-average property tax dollars with construction and maintenance of school facilities.
Another $160 million in one-time funds will go toward launching pilot programs on school safety and childhood literacy. In a first, the state will also offer teachers six weeks of paid maternity leave.
The education package also funds pay raises of $3,000 to $6,000 for all Oklahoma teachers and certified school employees. Educators will receive pay raises commensurate with their years of experience. The average pay hike will be $4,766.
All of the public school investments make it clear that Oklahomans support public education and local teachers, Stitt said. The governor said he hopes the increased public education funding will drive more people to become educators.
“We want you to know in the state of Oklahoma that you’re valued; you’re appreciated,” he told teachers.
Noting that the state has put a record $1.3 billion in new money toward public schools in the past five years, Stitt said common education funding will remain a top priority going forward.