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Opinion: Oklahoma tax-credit scholarship program saves state money and helps poor children ... despite what some people think

Opinion: Oklahoma tax-credit scholarship program saves state money and helps poor children ... despite what some people think

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Will Rogers said, “The problem in America isn’t so much what people don’t know; the problem is what people think they know that just ain’t so.” We have been meeting those people ever since we started a statewide tax credit scholarship program in 2014.

For much of my adult life I served as a teacher, administrator and researcher in Oklahoma’s higher education system. Upon retirement, a friend asked me to help him start a statewide tax credit scholarship program for lower income students in private schools.

I had never used a state tax credit, and hadn’t been in a private school since 1958. But I have since learned that if you have seen one private school you have seen one private school. They are all different. And I learned a properly designed tax credit is a valuable tool for a state.

We organized the Opportunity Scholarship Fund to help lower income students attend private schools. After studying the 2011 implementing law, we realized this was as close to a perfect public/private effort as we had ever seen.

Everyone wins.

Lower income students get scholarships, their parents can have a choice, the state budget saves money, the donors have a valuable incentive, the systems are streamlined, the program’s administration is low-cost and decentralized, and the law has guardrails to prevent abuse.

We also learned that 18 other states have very similar programs. Some are huge, others more modest. Oklahoma proportionally offered the fewest tax credits of any, and placed an annual ceiling on that amount.

How could anyone possibly complain? We soon found out.

After we became successful and exceeded the state cap, the long knives were drawn. Our efforts to increase the abysmally low tax credit cap were met with scorched earth resistance.

At every turn, we were criticized by well-meaning but ill-informed public educators and administrators. They seemingly “knew what wasn’t so” and spent a lot of time and money convincing others.

That’s the background. Here is what Oklahomans “should know is so, but may not”.

The program saves the state money. Who says so? The state’s most respected public policy economist says so. The program tax credits do not “take money away” from public education. Who says so? Tax credit budget experts of our Legislature have told us that is not possible.

Providing these scholarships to attend religious schools is perfectly constitutional. Who says so? The U.S. Supreme Court says so. The vast majority of scholarship money goes to kids from the lowest income families. Who says so? Our detailed program records say so.

Our scholarship eligibility standards are generous, but the awarded scholarships are limited to those with demonstrable need. This is detailed in our annual audit.

How many schools participate? Our OSF group has 67 schools, and the Catholic school systems have another 33. They account for almost all of the accredited private schools in the state. A handful of large and exclusive private schools do not participate. They each have sensible reasons.

Our schools have half the cost of public schools. Our scholarships generally pay less than half the tuition as our participating schools require families to have “skin in the game.”

Interestingly, we see families who have kids in both private and district schools. Why? Because they know what others “think they know but don’t.” They know education is not a one-size-fits-all deal, and that every kid has different needs.

Mike Lapolla is a governing board member of the Opportunity Scholarship Fund. He lives in Tulsa.


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Mike Lapolla is a governing board member of the Opportunity Scholarship Fund. He lives in Tulsa.

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