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Oklahoma's massive school voucher bill is dead, but the ideas behind it are unlikely to go away

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State of Oklahoma
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In a dramatic turn Wednesday, a coalition of mostly rural Republicans and urban Democrats voted down one of the most headline-grabbing bills of the year in Senate Bill 1647.

The measure would have allocated roughly $128 million toward an Education Savings Account program that would dole out money to private school students based on how much they’d receive from the public school funding formula.

But the bill’s author Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat told reporters Thursday that though his Oklahoma Empowerment Act is dead, the idea behind it is not.

“I've been in this building long enough that I know that if people want something bad enough, we can get it done,” he said.

It’s unclear exactly how that would happen. Treat demurred on the topic when reporters pressed him Thursday. However, Oklahoma’s budget process that mostly happens in the dark could be a vehicle for funding for school vouchers.

But, Treat acknowledged there’s a long way to go for education savings accounts in Oklahoma. House Speaker Charles McCall has defiantly opposed the measure and said he wouldn’t even consider it if it made its way across the Capitol.

Treat said, though, that House leadership is interested in the ideas contained in the bill in future years. So even if the state ultimately doesn’t pass an education savings account bill this year, next year could be an option.

“Leadership on the House side indicated before session that this wasn't the session, but next session was, if the governor got reelected they would be supportive of school choice, and that's from the upper echelons of their leadership,” Treat said. “So I have hope that they'll do that.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt has been highly supportive of the measure, touting it in his State of the State Address. He expressed disappointment in SB 1647’s failure Thursday.

"I am grateful to Pro Tem Greg Treat and every senator who voted to put parents in charge of their child’s education," he said in a statement. "At the same time, it is deeply concerning that so many voted to deny parents and students choices and keep them trapped in a system that has failed many Oklahoma children and left our state 49th in the nation in education."

Stitt continued, "Every child deserves the opportunity to attend the school that best works for them, regardless of their zip code or income level, and I will never stop fighting to empower parents and fund students over systems."

It appears the school voucher debate will be a major sticking point during the 2022 campaign for governor. Newly Democratic State Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister praised the bill’s failure. She is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to take on Stitt in the November election for governor.

“Senate Bill 1647, a voucher scheme designed by Gov. Stitt, would have effectively destroyed public schools in Oklahoma,” she said in a statement. “I am grateful parents and communities have been heard loud and clear. Oklahomans want strong, neighborhood schools in urban areas and in small towns across the state. Parents want the focus on increasing support for all our public school students and to urgently solve our teacher shortage. Our kids can't wait.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Robby Korth grew up in Ardmore, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Nebraska with a journalism degree.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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