TULSA, Okla. — An Oklahoma Senate bill is stirring up controversy over funding for students and private schools.
Senate Bill 1647 would allow public money to follow students to help pay for educational services outside of a public school. The bill is known as the “Oklahoma Empowerment Act.”
With the bill, if a student chooses to leave a public school for a private school, the public funds for that student would follow them to their new school. That aspect has some worried about funding for public school districts.
“It feels like there’s constantly a threat to public education," said Jennifer Esau, a special education teacher in Claremore.
Governor Kevin Stitt championed the bill during last month’s state of the state address.
“Because in Oklahoma, we need to fund students not systems," Gov. Stitt said.
The bill, written by Senator Greg Treat (R-OKC), who is President Pro Tempore, would take the more than $3,000 of state funds allocated for a student and put it in a savings account that the parent can access. They can use that money toward a range of things from private school tuition to tutoring services or specialized after-school or summer programs.
Gov. Stitt said education isn’t a one-size-fits-all model and parents should have more school choices.
“We need to take bold steps," Gov. Stitt said. "It will take courage. It will take a desire to make a generational impact.”
However, Esau, who is running for the state senate, worries this will hurt public schools even more. She said while about 90 percent of Oklahoma students attend public school, we’re one of the lowest states for per-pupil funding.
“Public schools are already struggling with staff shortages, increasing class sizes," Esau said. "So, just the thought of any loss of funding really puts a lot of stress on the teachers who are the boots on the ground right now.”
Many who oppose the bill don’t want taxpayer dollars going toward private education. Esau also points out the impact this could have on rural school districts, many of which are already underfunded.
“Any loss of funding, I mean, it’s going to hit really hard," Esau said. "Especially with our rural schools who don’t have the same private school options as the more metro areas.”
The bill was originally scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor this week; however, the session for the week is over and it was not brought up. It could be heard again next week before the Thursday deadline for senate bills to advance to the house. If it doesn’t pass then, it will not move forward this legislative session.
We reached out to Sen. Treat’s office multiple times for an interview to discuss this bill, but he was not available.
You can view the bill here.
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