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Oklahoma House passes, but withholds 'school choice' measure for leverage in education funding standoff

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall talk ahead of the State of the State address on Feb. 6, 2023.
Abi Ruth Martin
The Oklahoma Legislative Service Bureau
Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall talk ahead of the State of the State address on Feb. 6, 2023.

On Tuesday, the National Day of Teacher Appreciation, the Oklahoma House of Representatives rejected a hefty teacher pay raise proposal and passed a voucher-like tax credit program — sort of.

House Bill 1934 would give public dollars to families to use for private school or homeschool tuition and expenses. The issue has spawned weeks of back-and-forth at the Capitol, with the most recent iteration including a few guardrails the House doesn’t love, but appears to be stomaching.

In this version, the amount of the credit would be tiered based on a family’s income. So, a private school student’s household that makes under $75,000 would get the largest credit amount of $7,500, and households making over $250,000 would get the smallest, at $5,000. The Senate’s version also added a limit of how much money the program can cost over the next three years - capping out at $250 million by 2026.

But it’s not hitting the governor’s desk just yet.

In a rare procedural move of capturing a bill, House Speaker Charles McCall moved to hold the bill, meaning it won’t be sent to Governor Kevin Stitt yet.

That gives the House some leverage to negotiate on the Senate’s newly amended version of the other big education bill — House Bill 2672. That includes $4,000-8,000 teacher raises, $3,000 returning school employee stipends and $150 million added to the school funding formula.

But House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols said there were two reasons the House wouldn’t accept the Senate amendments: he says the measures aren’t fully funded, and the bill lacks the House’s Oklahoma Student Fund, which would give smaller districts disproportionately more money per student than large districts.

“House Bill 2672 would result — absent extra funding being put in the bill from some outside area — [in] a $166 million cut to classroom funding. Or in the alternative, if you did do that, it would make the bill unconstitutional as blatant logrolling,” Echols said during the hearing. “And finally, because once again, it just throws rural Oklahoma smooth under the bus, and the House is not willing to do that.”

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat responded in a press release, saying the House is trying to force the Senate’s hand to revisit House Bill 2672, or else the House will kill the tax credit bill. He called for state leaders to hold a public meeting with all plans on the table to “let the public see what we continue to argue about.”

“The unprecedented move to hold the school choice legislation hostage until the Senate agrees to pass the constitutionally questionable Oklahoma Student Fund and other pet projects is also a non-starter for the Republican Senate caucus,” Treat said in the release. “In reality, the only thing the House of Representatives is doing for every student, every parent and every teacher is telling them they are not worth being taken serious[ly] and they are more interested in playing a zero-sum game where no one is going to win.”

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.