Friday, May 6, 2011

Legislature Sends Major School Choice Bill To Governor

The state Senate voted this week to increase educational opportunity for needy children through a new scholarship tax credit program.
Senate Bill 969, by state Sen. Dan Newberry and state Rep. Lee Denney, would create the “Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.”
Under the provisions of SB 969, students meeting financial need requirements or living in school districts identified for improvement under No Child Left Behind will be eligible for scholarships.
“In order to give every student a chance to learn, we must empower students and families with freedom of choice,” said Newberry, R-Tulsa. “This legislation will encourage private sector investment in the success of our low-income children, removing barriers to achievement and helping children build better lives. Expanding choice will create a more fertile climate for learning, improving our education system.”
The bill would allow a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the amount contributed to a scholarship-granting organization up to $1,000 per person, $2,000 per couple or up to $100,000 per business entity.
The total credit authorized could not exceed $1.75 million annually.  
“This legislation provides an opportunity for Oklahomans to help poor children obtain a quality education,” said state Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing. “It provides a much-needed new source of education funding to benefit the students who are most at-risk.”
Scholarships funded through the tax credit program would serve children from low-income families and allow them to attend private schools. The privately funded scholarships would pay up to $5,000 or 80 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in the school district where the recipient student resides. Scholarships for special needs students under the bill would cover up to $25,000.

The measure further allows the same tax credit to any taxpayer who makes a contribution to an eligible educational improvement grant organization. For any taxpayer who makes a commitment to contribute the same amount for two additional years, the credit would be equal to 75 percent of the amount of the contribution.  
Overall, the bill provides for a maximum $5 million in annual credits allowed – $3.5 million would go to individual scholarships, while the remaining $1.5 million would fund grants to help rural schools in areas where private school is not an option.
“This legislation would direct more funding to rural schools to help them offer courses that are not feasible under current budget constraints,” Denney said. “This legislation will help all students who have trouble accessing high-level academic courses and instruction, whether they live in the inner city or rural Oklahoma.”
She said Senate Bill 969 could direct more money to education without any true impact on state finances because of existing tax practices.
“The money going to these scholarship programs is money the state would never have received anyway since it would have been sheltered through other tax breaks already on the books,” Denney said. “By providing citizens a way to obtain the same tax breaks while also benefiting needy children in both urban and rural areas, we are maximizing the use of those dollars to benefit poor children who would otherwise be denied the education they desperately need to break the cycle of poverty and create a better life for their families.
“This bill is about helping kids and schools that don’t have the means to obtain and provide the opportunities taken for granted in other parts of our state.”
Sen. Dan Newberry
Newberry noted the measure would increase the overall amount spent on primary education while saving the state tax dollars.
“An increase in private investment in Oklahoma education will help more children reach their potential,” Newberry said. “In addition, students ineligible for the scholarship will benefit from increased per-pupil funding, as districts experience savings on students no longer enrolled. Having worked hard on this legislation for two years, I look forward to seeing the measure signed into law.”
Senate Bill 969 now advances to the Governor.
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