Alva Review-Courier -

Legislators talk about school choice bills in Alva meeting


February 26, 2023

Marione Martin

Rep. Carl Newton (left) and Sen. Casey Murdock talk about Oklahoma Parental Choice legislation during the Alva Chamber Community Coffee at Windy Ford.

School choice legislation was the main topic of discussion by Rep. Carl Newton and Sen. Casey Murdock at the Alva Chamber Community Coffee. The event drew a standing room only crowd at Windy Ford on Feb. 17. Although a number of topics were briefly addressed during the question and answer session, the two legislators talked mostly about new legislation dubbed "Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act."

House Bill 1935 had just cleared committee review when Newton spoke about it in Alva. The bill has now been passed by the House by a 75-25 vote and goes to the Senate along with a companion bill benefitting teachers and public schools.

Rep. Carl Newton

"School vouchers don't help rural Oklahoma. If you're going to a private school from Alva where do you go?" said Newton.

"Right now Oklahoma schools are 48th in the nation. Let's take out the Tulsa school district. We move to 25th in the nation. Let's take out the Tulsa and Oklahoma City school districts. We're 15th in the nation then. The problem isn't in rural Oklahoma.

"The problem is more in those areas. And that's why they keep touting the vouchers because there are some problems in the metro areas. But I don't know that the private schools are going to want to accept all the ones they're going to ship to them anyway."

Newton said last year Gov. Stitt pushed for a voucher bill, introduced in the Senate. "Sen. Murdock's vote was a no on the voucher bill. There were a lot of them that got beat up because they were no's on that, and he was one of them," Newton said.

"The House has come up with a plan, and it's big, but here's what we did. First of all, we divided the pie different ways," Newton explained. "Here's what the public schools are going to get. $150 million for increased teacher salaries, a $2,500 increase in teacher salaries for all teachers. There's $50 million for Redbud School Grants. Redbuds are the top 100 schools with the lowest ad valorem (taxes), which includes some of the charter schools. That's considered part of public ed.

"The first $150 million goes on the formula so that affects Alva because Alva's not on the formula, correct? Right, they're not going to get any Redbud. That puts us at a little of a disadvantage. What our concern is – rural Oklahoma. The majority of the Republican House members are from rural Oklahoma. Most of the metro are on the Democratic side. So we wanted to put out $300 million, not wanted to but felt we had to, put out $300 million per student. But we also capped it that no school would get more than $2 million. Alva schools would get $958,000.

"They can use it for teachers and staff, STEM, textbooks and curriculum, computers, additional instructional space, fees for testing, summer or after school programs, student services and concurrent enrollment with colleges like Northwestern.

"The whole package is $800 million. The other $300 million is for private schools and home schoolers. It would be a tax credit. Parents of private school students would get a $5,000 tax credit per student per year. This bill would allow home schoolers to get $2,500 per year."

Newton said with this plan more money will go to public schools with more going to rural schools than metro schools. If there is a shortfall in the state budget, the money would be decreased.

Sen. Casey Murdock

"I'm giving you the Senate's perspective. There are some tweaks to be made," said Murdock. At the time, he didn't have a lot of information on the bills, which had not reached the Senate.

"On last year's voucher bill, the pro tem had a cap. If you made more than $150,000 you didn't qualify for this. I think we need something like this in this proposal," said Murdock.

"I'll agree with that," added Newton.

"Because if you're living in Gaillardia and you've got four kids going to private school, and you're bringing in a million dollars a year, do you need that, which would be $20,000 a year, do you really need that? But you would be financially irresponsible if your accountant didn't apply for that if you qualified. I think we need some caps in there," said Murdock.

"Our A & B chair says that after we do this as is, we've got about $356 million left. With all the bills we've got in the Senate ... we're going to use up all that $356 million."

Speaking of past experience with budget shortfalls, Murdock said, "I just want to approach this a little more cautiously because we went through those bad times. One thing that worries me is, this is every year. It's going to be a recurring cost. What concerns me, if we come into a bad budget year and we reduce this, we're not just going to have educators calling us and saying hey, you cut our budget – we're going to have those parents of those private schools saying hey, where's my money.

"There's just a lot to go through and we're just at the starting line. I was visiting with my wife last night, and I said, 'In all honesty, this is a good time to do this. This gives us all session to work on it and tweak it and make it the best product we can.'"

Murdock said it's not that we don't need to spend money on education, but "we have other responsibilities in the state. I'm on the road a lot. I drive across a lot of roads. We need to start paying attention to some roads. We've got health care needs. There are a lot of needs in the state. I feel that my job is to manage your tax dollars the best way that we can manage them. We've got a wide section of responsibilities to take care of."

Concurrent Enrollment

When the legislators opened the floor for questions, Todd Holder asked, "How much money is going to come to higher ed – increase, decrease?"

"This is all common ed we're talking about right now. There is a request by higher ed for more money. There would be some more money coming to Northwestern because of that $300 million. They can use that on concurrent enrollment," said Newton.

He explained that concurrent enrollment allows high school students to take college classes for credit with no tuition cost.

"It's great for parents," said Murdock. "I know my niece did that and she went into college as a sophomore.

"We have a fight coming on concurrent enrollment. I'm going to try to kill this bill. There's a bill out there to allow the big colleges, OU and OSU, to start reaching into that pot of concurrent enrollment. The issue I have with that, the state pays for that concurrent enrollment. They reimburse, it's free. OU and OSU are going to charge their cost for those hours. At Northeastern, the cost is $97 an hour. There was another college, $197 an hour. It was twice the cost to the state.

"Well, as legislators we budget this pool of money for this program. What scares me is you have OU, OSU, the high ticket colleges, that come in and lap up all those funds and use them up, and we'll miss some kids or we're back there putting more money into it. I think the best use for our taxpayers, and it helps our small colleges, leave it where it's at, keep the big colleges out and let our small schools utilize that concurrent enrollment."

Liz Smith asked, "Why not put a cap on what they would be allowed? You're not telling the parent they can't go, but they have a choice."

"That would be a good idea, too," said Murdock.


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