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School voucher bill fails in Oklahoma Senate during late night vote

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A school voucher bill narrowly failed late Wednesday night after hours of debate and lobbying from lawmakers.

Senate Bill 1647 went down on the Senate floor after it failed to garner 25 votes to pass through the chamber to the House. Instead it got 22 votes in favor and 24 opposed.

In a dramatic turn late Wednesday night, the vote was left open for lawmakers to change their minds for almost two hours. Several lawmakers changed their votes over the course of that time. However, the measure never had enough in favor to get over the finish line.

Defeating it were a coalition of Democrats and mostly rural Republicans who say it would damage their school communities by stripping funding from public schools to pay for private school scholarships.

Sen. Pro Tem Greg Treat said the bill is an important piece of legislation to him. And he would pursue it even at the risk of failure on the Senate floor.

"This bill is a bill that I passionately believe in,” Treat said. “It is a bill of design to give the opportunity of school choice to kids and their parents."

The mechanics of the bill works like this: if a family enrolls in an Oklahoma private school they become eligible for a publicly funded Education Savings Account. They can then spend that money on a private school scholarship or other educational services.

Homeschool students wouldn't be eligible after homeschool parents lobbied to be left out. And there is an income cap of 300% of reduced lunch, which means a family of four must make less than $154,000 annually to qualify. The vast majority of students in Oklahoma would be eligible for the program by that income measure.

A revolving fund would be created to pay for the program, and the legislature would allocate $128 million to the program for the coming school year.

The measure was opposed by both Democrats and Republicans during debate.

Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso, has voted against the measure twice in committee and on Wednesday night.

He said the bill is a poor use of dollars and because there aren’t guardrails in the bill for how it will be spent, there won’t be accountability.

"We do not want public dollars to go off the grid, unaccountable and hope we see the benefit,” Dossett said.

Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City agreed.

"This voucher bill is a government giveaway with no accountability," Hicks said.

Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, said that by doling out $128 million to private school families the legislature is signaling that there’s already too much money being spent on public schools.

If that is indeed the case, he said, the state should cut taxes, he said.

“This bill is not the answer for fixing public schools,” he said. “If you’re upset with the public bill that’s fine. This is not the way to fix her.”

Plus, he said, strings would be inevitable with the vouchers, even if the bill’s sponsors promise there won’t be in the future.

"As a wise man once said, with the sheckles come the shackles,” Hamilton said.

Absent was Tulsa Republican Nathan Dahm, who was reportedly hosting a Washington D.C. fundraiser in his bid to replace US Senator Jim Inhofe at the time of the vote.

Dahm had voted in favor of the measure in committee.

But even if the bill had passed it would’ve faced a high hurdle to becoming law: House Speaker Charles McCall had said he won’t give it a hearing.

Treat - along with Gov. Kevin Stitt - have said they fully support school choice legislation and will continue to advocate for it. Money allocated for a similar education savings account program could come out of budget negotiations.

Robby Korth
Robby Korth joined StateImpact Oklahoma in October 2019, focusing on education reporting.