Lawmakers expand private school scholarship tax credits (Capitol Update)

Getting a “nose under the tent” is an expression used regularly at the legislature when a new idea or program is proposed. The expression refers to an alleged Arab proverb that if a camel is allowed to get its nose inside of a tent, it will be impossible to prevent the rest of it from entering. A small, seemingly innocuous act or decision will lead to much larger, more serious, and less desirable consequences down the line. The expression seems especially useful if the new idea or program involves ideologically differing objectives. 

Proponents of public funding for private schools got their “nose under the tent” with passage of the “Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act” back in 2011. The Act gives scholarships to low-income or special needs students to attend private schools. The argument is that these students should have the ability to choose a school that meets their needs, especially if the needs are not being met in a public school. The Act also provided for “educational improvement grants” to eligible public schools.  

The private school scholarship money goes to parents of the low-income or special needs students. The donations to the public schools for educational improvement grants are used for grants “to implement innovative educational programs for students.” 

The money for the scholarships and educational improvement grants is donated by individuals or businesses, and the donors get a state tax credit for 50 percent of their donation for one year or 75 percent if they commit to a donation for two years. The “nose under the tent” applies because this was a new way for state taxpayers to subsidize tuition for private schools. It started small because the overall statewide cap on donations was $3.5 million for private school scholarships and $1.5 million for public educational improvement grants. That meant the state returned $1.75 million to $2.625 million to taxpayers who donated to the private school scholarships, not a huge number. 

The camel got much farther into the tent last week with passage of Senate Bill 1080 by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, and House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. The legislature increased the statewide tax credit caps for both public and private school donations to $25 million each. The bill added public school foundations as qualified recipients of donations eligible for the tax credit. The foundations use the money for grants to teachers or for purchases of materials, equipment, and other needs of the schools. This means, through the tax credit, taxpayers will now be subsidizing tuition for private schools by $12.5 million to $18.75 million per year. And they’ll do the same for public schools and foundations.

Public school advocates argue that state tax credits to pay for private school scholarships take money from public schools and hinder their education programs. They will surely feel they lost a round in this battle over public school funding. Private schools got their nose under the tent a decade ago, and no one knows exactly how big this camel is.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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