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GOP-Led Oklahoma School Voucher Program Clears First Legislative Hurdle

Jacob McCleland

Oklahoma's House Common Education Committee narrowly approved a Republican-backed voucher program on Monday. The Education Savings Account program allows public money to be spent on students who attend private schools.

State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, said during committee debate the bill creates school choice options that some families desperately need.

“This bill bases that percentage of the money available to each student on the family's household income,” Nelson said. “There is at least 30 percent of the formula money made available to every family in the state. But for lower-income families there's a greater amount available."

But opponents like Dan Vincent say it takes money away from cash strapped schools.

"So I think this is just the wrong time, and really the wrong bill, for what our schools need right now,” Vincent said.

That bill has also drawn opposition from lawmakers who asked Nelson if the idea would erode even more money from public schools amid a $1.3 billion dollar budget shortfall. Nelson said as more students take advantage of the ESA program, more money will be made available to schools, even if students leave mid-year.

“The money left behind through this legislation would go back through the school funding formula to increase per-pupil revenue in the public school,” Nelson said. “So I think it's actually an ideal time to pursue this."

Nelson said there was no way to know the total cost of implementing the program, which led to committee members to ask if the bill needed more accountability, and hurt public education, eCapitol's Christie Southern reports:

Nelson said the agreement would be between the state and parent and not the state and a private school. He also pointed out that with a state-issued card, the state would be able to monitor purchases in real time, possibly leading to "more control with this method than you would have trying to regulate a public or private school," he said. "You couldn't spend funds on something that isn't an approved purchase," Nelson argued. "There is a clause in here that says you can't have money rebate back either." The bill also allows for criminal prosecution for persons using money fraudulently. "The ultimate accountability here rests with the parents," he said.

The measure advanced out of committee on a 9-8 vote, and now goes to the full House. If it becomes law, the voucher program takes effect this fall.

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