Ben Felder: Once focused on low-income students, Oklahoma’s school choice effort goes ‘universal’
School vouchers used to be all about rescuing poor students from terrible schools. In Oklahoma, as Ben Felder reports, the sales pitch has changed.
In calling for state funds to pay for private school tuition, whether through vouchers or tax credits, Gov. Kevin Stitt has usually mentioned children in low-income families as the target of his school choice push.
Students in south Oklahoma City and north Tulsa are “trapped” in low-performing public schools, Stitt said, describing a single mother struggling to keep her son out of a local gang, or a paycheck-to-paycheck family unable to afford tutoring for a child struggling to read.
But as the state Legislature considers a bill that would give refundable tax credits to parents with children in private schools, the governor and leaders in the House prefer a plan available to all Oklahomans, regardless of income.
Allowing affluent families to have part of their private school tuition covered with state funds represents a shift within the school choice effort that had previously built its campaign around helping low-income families.
Most states with some form of private school vouchers or tax credits, including Oklahoma, limit its use for students with special needs or living in poverty.
Now some Republican-led states are pushing for “universal” voucher systems that would be open to all families, including those already paying for private school education.
“This isn’t for low-income folks, at least not based on the proposal that’s being presented,” said Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City.
The tax credit bill advanced in the Senate despite objections from her and the rest of the Democratic caucus.
Subsidizing private school choice is the new voucher pitch. Maybe it helps build political support in a state where vouchers are a tough sell. But in Oklahoma, the GOP won’t even agree to an income gap for subsidized private choice.
But the Senate’s addition of a $250,000 income cap has created disagreement between the two chambers.
“Income caps, the problem with them is it’s a form of class warfare,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, who warned a bill with income limits won’t pass the House. “You can never say that every parent and student in the state of Oklahoma wins with an income cap.”