Gov. Kevin Stitt has vowed to make expanding private school choice programs a top priority in his second term, but details are still scarce on how he will revive the plan.

Stitt and Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, pushed for the creation of a voucher program last legislative session in the form of education savings accounts that families could use to cover some private school costs. But the proposal failed from a lack support from rural lawmakers, who feared the plan would siphon state dollars from schools in their districts.

Such a program could cost the state more than $167 million a year if just 5% of economically disadvantaged students participated, according to the State Department of Education’s estimate. But some lawmakers disputed that figure. 

Opponents of voucher programs have claimed the plan would mostly benefit families who could already afford private school.

Average private school tuition in Oklahoma is between $5,700 and $6,500, according to various estimates. The amount available per student from an education savings account program might not be enough to cover tuition and other costs for many schools.

Stitt spokeswoman Kate Vesper said that even though funding from an education savings account may not cover the full cost of private school tuition, it would “give families an opportunity they may have not otherwise been able to afford.” 

Two months ahead of the 2023 legislative session, Stitt’s office said it couldn’t provide specific details on what a new school choice plan would look like since a new plan hadn’t been introduced yet. Treat’s office didn’t respond to questions from The Frontier with details on how any revised plans would be funded or whether students already attending private schools would be eligible.

Five-year-old L.J. practices reading with a teacher at Infinity Generation Preparatory School. KAYLA BRANCH/THE FRONTIER

At a speaking event in October hosted by a University of Oklahoma professor, Stitt said local property taxes would stay within local public schools while roughly $4,000 in per-pupil funding from the state could follow students to private schools or other education settings. How much each student would actually receive would depend on their school district, among other things, Stitt’s office said.

“We’re going to continue to invest in schools, but we want some of that funding to be fungible to fund the students, not necessarily the ZIP code where they belong,” Stitt said at the event. 

Vouchers have been a harder sell in rural parts of the state, where schools already face shrinking enrollment and fear losing needed funding. 

On the campaign trail, Stitt said he would make sure rural schools were protected and not defunded. At the October speaking event, Stitt said schools wouldn’t see funding cuts since they’d retain local property tax dollars dedicated to public schools even if a student decided to attend school elsewhere.

Erika Wright, founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, said she isn’t sure how lawmakers can create a voucher program that doesn’t harm rural schools.

”I’m suspicious of that,” she said. The Rural Schools Coalition helped successfully lobby against education savings accounts during the 2022 legislative session. 

A revised education savings account bill might only make the accounts available for students in urban districts that have more private school options. 

Vesper said there hasn’t been a “mass exodus of students” from public schools in other states with education savings account programs, which see about 5-10% of students participating.  

“The governor’s goal is to ensure that parents, regardless of their income or ZIP code, have the opportunity to send their child to a school that best fits their needs,” Vesper said.

In Arizona, where lawmakers recently voted to expand access to taxpayer-funded education accounts for private schools, 80% of applicants weren’t enrolled in public schools, meaning many were already attending private programs or home school, according to a November report by the research nonprofit The Grand Canyon Institute. Nearly half of applicants lived in zip codes where the median household income is $80,000 or more, the report said.

A separate report from the advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona, which opposes vouchers, claims rural schools in the state have suffered disproportionately from low teacher pay, lack of infrastructure funding and limited access to advanced courses for students while roughly $300 million a year could go to paying for vouchers through the expansion.

“Vouchers disproportionately benefit suburban families, while providing no benefit to rural communities,” the report said. 

Treat was unavailable for an interview, but his office said his staff met with education groups and parents throughout the summer and will use those conversations to direct policy choices during the legislative session. 

The education savings account bill from the 2022 legislative session went through several iterations as Treat tried to appease homeschool groups that didn’t want their students to be eligible for the program. An income cap of $154,000 for a family of four was added to address concerns about giving tax dollars to wealthy families. Lawmakers initially planned to use state education dollars that would have gone to public schools for the program, but later tried to set up a separate fund with $128 million in dedicated money.

Across the country, taxpayer-funded education savings accounts have been approved in about eight states, according to a 2022 report to Congress. A few of the programs have faced legal challenges. 

Many school choice programs have participation restrictions based on disability status, family income, public school performance and prior enrollment in a public school. In Tennessee, educational savings accounts are only available for students that live in the most populous areas in the state or districts with poorly performing schools.

But some programs have later been expanded to include all students or raise income caps, according to research from the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan, education policy research group. 

Other school choice initiatives in Oklahoma have also later seen expansion once encoded into law. When charter schools were first allowed in Oklahoma, the programs were initially limited to the state’s urban centers. By 2015, rural Republicans had agreed to allow charter schools throughout the state. Oklahoma also recently expanded the cap for scholarship tax credits to private and public schools. 

Rural Republicans still have a strong sway on school choice issues at the state Capitol. Treat’s education savings account plan failed in the Senate by a thin margin this spring. But two anti-voucher senators were voted out of office and replaced by pro-voucher Republicans from Edmond and Tulsa during the Nov. 8 elections. 

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said last year vouchers were a nonstarter in the House. It’s unclear whether that stance will continue into the 2023 legislative session, especially through budget negotiations. 

“The House has always supported a parent’s right to choose the educational option they felt best suited their family,” McCall said in a statement to The Frontier. “The hard work is always finding a policy that gives all parents and children the same opportunity regardless of geographic location.”