In time-honored legislative jargon it’s called “putting lipstick on a pig.” Most legislators have opposed school vouchers for private schools. In 2022 the Senate tried to pass a bill giving private school students a publicly funded “education savings account,” and it failed. At the time the House leadership said it didn’t matter. The bill wouldn’t be heard in the House anyway. The Speaker said, however, that the House would take another look if Governor Stitt, a proponent of vouchers, were re-elected.
Public polling in March 2022 showed 61 percent of Oklahomans were opposed to the use of taxpayer dollars going toward private school scholarships. In the same polling, 85% supported increased state funding for K-12 public schools to hire more teachers and decrease class size, 85% supported increasing pay and benefits of Oklahoma teachers to be more comparable to other professions with similar education and training requirements, and 89% supported increasing the salaries for public school support staff.
Despite the polling, in the poll that counts, Gov. Stitt was re-elected, and elections have consequences. A combination of the governor’s re-election, a flood of federal COVID funding available to meet many state needs, and a cyclical increase in state revenue gave life to the moribund voucher movement in the 2023 session. Still unable to overcome opposition to “vouchers,” in overall end-of-session budget negotiations, legislators put lipstick on the pig and passed a bill giving credits to taxpayers to reimburse tuition for private schools.
The deal gave an eye-popping $625 million appropriation to public schools with $500 million going through the state aid formula and $125 million outside the formula, mainly as a trade-off to blunt rural opposition to the private school tax credits. $286 million was directed for teacher pay raises. The tax credit cost $150 million in the first year, $200 million the second, and $250 the third year.
Last week legislators learned the Oklahoma Tax Commission plans to take the lipstick off the pig with its rules implementing the tax credit. Families will apply for the credits separately from filing income taxes, and they can’t claim the credit on their income tax return. The commission sends a check to the school that is made out to the parent, who must endorse it. The school then deposits the check to cover the student’s tuition.
Rep. Cody Maynard, R-Durant, said the Tax Commission’s proposed emergency rules outline something more like a voucher program. In a press release last week Maynard said, “House Bill 1934 was intended to create a tax credit and not a voucher system in Oklahoma, yet the drafted rules have many voucher-like qualities.” Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, Chair of the Senate Education Committee and Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee both expressed concerns about implementation of the bill.
President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-OKC, acknowledged through a spokesperson that a legislative fix may be needed next session. The prediction here is that this will not be the last time subsidizing private schools with public funds will cause problems. In the future when public school funding is scraping bottom and the state’s teacher shortage remains unsolved, Oklahoma will still be hemorrhaging $250 million per year for private schools.