Oklahomans have spoken loud and clear that their top priority is a strong, adequately funded public school system.
We saw this repeatedly in 2018, when the Legislature reached the historic supermajority necessary to fund a teacher pay raise, with the incredible community support during the teacher walkout and with the election results when numerous legislators who had opposed the tax increases for education funding lost their seats. Further, we voted for candidates who supported our public schools and many of these candidates were elected.
Last year, legislators considered Senate Bill 407 to expand equal opportunity tax credits, which divert tax revenue for private school tuition. Many Oklahomans opposed this expansion, and wisely, legislators did not advance this bill.
Unfortunately, SB 407 is back in 2020 with the biggest expansion supporter being scholarship granting organizations. SGOs are the charitable entities that receive the donations triggering a tax credit to the donor. SGOs also pocket up to 10% of donations before passing the rest to private schools for tuition scholarships. Ironically, that 10% is used to pay lobbyists to pressure legislators for more tax credits and to blast the internet with online ads and sponsored heart-wrenching stories of the few needy kids who have benefited from these scholarships.
What seems like a worthy attempt to help underprivileged kids is really a planned and well-financed strategy to dismantle public education. In its 2018 report to the Legislature, the state’s largest SGO outlined its ultimate mission that would crush the state’s ability to provide core services including public education. In the report, the SGO recommended the removal of all caps on available tax credits, increasing the credit given to the donor from 50% to 100%, eliminating the income eligibility requirement and expanding the credit to other taxes besides income tax.
The interesting part about this so-called need for expansion is that under the current program, the state’s largest SGO cannot even meet the minimum statutory requirement to provide a specified percentage of scholarships to “low income eligible” students. These are students whose families earn less than $46,435 per year, well below Oklahoma’s 2018 median family income of $51,924. Yet, there are 425,000 of these “low income eligible” children being served in public schools every day. Even more disturbing, in its 2018 report, the group disclosed that a whopping 19% of its scholarship recipients belonged to families with incomes above the eligibility limit of $139,305 allowed by the law. The only reasonable conclusion is that this desired expansion is not seeking to serve “low income eligible” students, but rather, it is more about moving the ball forward to the ultimate goal of privatizing public education and eroding the state’s ability to provide core services.
SB 407 supporters have built a tempting enticement into the expansion by offering additional tax credits for donations to public schools. However, due to the sheer number of public schools competing for the credits, the unequitable per-school caps on the credits and the undependable nature of funding with donations, this portion of the bill is just bad policy and should be summarily rejected. Yes, public schools need more money, but it should be provided through the funding formula by taxpayers and not at the whim of donors.
Parents should absolutely have the right to choose what school is best for their child. They have the option to choose publicly funded and accountable, constitutionally required, public schools that offer a myriad of options and serve all students. Some 90% of Oklahoma families make this choice. Other parents decide a private school is best for their child. In this case, the parents, not the state, should bear the cost.
Our legislators will soon have to make tough budget decisions with $85 million less to appropriate for the coming year. We must remind each one that voters have spoken loud and clear over the past four years. They must reject the expansion of private school tuition tax credits and prioritize investing in our public schools. Ask your legislator to protect state revenues for state services and to vote no on Senate Bill 407.
Lisa M. Kramer lives in Bixby. She is a certified public accountant, serves on the Bixby school board, is co-chairwoman of the Bixby Parent Legislative Action Committee and chairwoman of the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee.
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