School Choice Bills Will Be Funded By State Aid, Rural Schools Express Concern

Friday, January 21st 2022, 6:19 pm

More than 2,000 new pieces of legislation have been proposed for the upcoming legislative session. Not all of them will make it through committee, but we expect one key education bill to undergo a lot of scrutiny.  

The Oklahoma Empowerment Act is a school choice measure that would give all students a voucher to help offset the costs of a private school education.  

Rural public schools’ advocates said this new law would be devastating to schools in Oklahoma’s rural counties, many of which don’t have a private school option.  

Advocate Erika Wright, head of Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalitions, says they are planning to fight the bill in the legislature.  

‘We’re in the middle of a pandemic, we’re in the middle of a teacher crisis, and now they’re talking about diverting literally hundreds of millions of dollars out of public-school classrooms,” Wright said.  

The financial issue comes because funds appropriated per child in a public school, about $8,000 per student, would then transfer to private schools.  

Private schools currently do not have access to that state aid money.  

SB1647 would change that. As the proposed law is currently written, the $8,000 per pupil of state aid money that public schools receive from the state would follow the student to a private school upon transfer. 

There are already about 34,000 private school students in Oklahoma. If the law passes, roughly $300 million of state aid money will be diverted from public schools to private schools.  

“So, you will have less money left over for all the programs that those of us in rural areas want to have to maintain a quality education for our kids. Obviously, academics are important, teachers, and then all of the other things that rural public schools and communities rally around, their ag programs, their Friday night lights, all of these things,” she said.  

Senator Greg Treat filed SB1647. Treat said the bill creates Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts which allow parents to use their child’s state education dollars to pursue a variety of educational opportunities. 

Open transfer laws passed last year and just went into effect January 1, allowing students to transfer out of their resident districts.  

Batiste Public Schools superintendent Tommy Turner said the measure would create a drain on their resources, in an area where this is not likely to ever have private education options. 

“In our area here, because of geography, it simply does not make financial sense for private schools to operate here. Even with the vouchers, it doesn’t make sense, our funding is not made up strictly of state aid,” said Turner.  

On February 21st, the coalition plans to host a rural schools day in the Capitol rotunda.  

Governor Kevin Stitt declared next week School Choice week, in Oklahoma.