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Oklahoma’s Backpack Funding Bill is One to Watch

Of the 2,300 bills filed by state lawmakers for the upcoming session, which starts Monday, the one I will be watching most closely is Senate Bill 1647 by Senate leader Greg Treat. He’s calling it the Oklahoma Empowerment Act.

The legislation would create universal vouchers by giving any parent a state-funded account for their child’s education.

The funds could be used on private school tuition, homeschool expenses, tutoring, books, computers, supplies, transportation to school and many other qualifying expenses. The effect would be moving public funds to private entities lacking in accountability and transparency.

The bill envisions each student in the state with a backpack full of money and carrying it to the educational options their parents choose. It’s similar to Epic Charter School’s learning fund but on a much larger scale (and Epic’s learning fund is under audit for possible misuse of public funds for private gain by the school’s co-founders.)

Groups advocating for school choice, like ChoiceMatters and Every Kid Counts Oklahoma (whose executive director is Ryan Walters, secretary of education and a candidate for state superintendent), champion the idea with slogans like “fund students, not systems.” The mantra is also repeated by Yes. every kid., a social welfare organization started by Charles Koch, the billionaire owner of Koch Industries.

However, here’s what the state constitution says about public schools:

Oklahoma’s state constitution.

The Legislature is specifically charged with maintaining a system of public schools. The bill, if passed, could be challenged on these grounds.

That’s not the only concern I’m hearing. As written, there is no testing requirement for students in the bill, which is required by most other states with voucher programs, according to a 2021 comparison by the Education Commission of the States.

That means there would be little way for the public to ascertain the quality of the education these students are receiving. Oklahoma already has the most lax homeschool law in the country, and private schools report almost no data, even when they receive funds through the current school choice programs: the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Fund and the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program.

Treat’s bill does not prohibit private schools from discriminating against students if they are LGBTQ or pregnant or for a number of other reasons (private schools can’t, though, discriminate on the basis of race if they are tax-exempt.) The proposal states an education provider “shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum” to accept payments from the program.

Treat, recognizing the sure-fire opposition to this proposal, in a video with ChoiceMatters last week said: “There’s going to be plenty of criticisms to hear. Just put on the armor. Get ready for the fight. It’s going to be a fight. But our kids are worth it.”

—- Jennifer Palmer-Oklahoma Watch