Saturday, April 20, 2019

OCPA column: Helping kids is good sense – and popular

Helping kids is good sense – and popular
By Jonathan Small, President of OCPA

Oklahoma ranks poorly in national comparisons of educational achievement. This year lawmakers have a proven way to start improving those statistics.

Senate Bill 407 would increases tax credits that can be issued for donations to programs giving private-school scholarships to low-income and special-needs children or donations to programs supporting traditional public schools. The bill would raise the cap so $15 million in tax credits will be issued annually for the scholarship portion of the program and $15 million for the public-school side, a total of $30 million per year.

Most tax credits reduce state revenue, at least on paper, but not this program. Jacob Dearmon and Russell Evans, professors at the Meinders School of Business at Oklahoma City University, have analyzed the scholarship side of the program and found Oklahoma government saved $1.39 for every dollar in tax credits issued in the 2017-2018 school year. The only thing the program does is increase private giving to education.

The scholarship program has been life-altering. Fifteen-year-old Alexis Hord used a tax-credit scholarship to attend The Cross Christian Academy in rural northeast Oklahoma. After a childhood filled with abuse, drug use, and few positive role models, Hord said “a new beginning” was created thanks to the opportunity to attend the faith-based school and receive help with life skills. She’s not alone. Countless other tax-credit scholarship beneficiaries have similar stories.

But SB 407 doesn’t just benefit a handful of children in private schools. It can positively benefit all children in every school in Oklahoma, because the legislation also incentives private giving to traditional public schools. Tax credits are already helping boost STEM offerings in rural communities. SB 407 expands the program so all public schools can participate. Before the tax-credit program was created, there was no program to incentivize private donations to public schools. Now SB 407 will turbo-charge the program and increase public-school student opportunities as well.

What are the downsides to SB 407? None. SB 407 will incentivize millions in private contributions to Oklahoma education. If that’s a bad outcome, one wonders what a good outcome looks like.

Oklahomans understand this, which is why so many citizens support this legislation. Polling conducted by WPA Intelligence, commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, found 60 percent of Oklahomans support raising the cap; just 23 percent are opposed. Support was strong in all parts of Oklahoma, and across party lines. Democratic women were among the strongest supporters with 70 percent in favor.

When respondents were told tax-credit scholarship beneficiaries include children with special needs and the homeless, support surged to 79 percent.

The question isn’t whether Oklahoma will offer tax credits. The question is what purpose will be served by tax credits. Oklahoma already gives tax credits for CNG use, windmills, rehabilitation of old buildings, and even American Ninja Warrior filming.

Why would we support those causes with tax credits, but refuse to use the same tool to boost education funding for Oklahoma children? It’s time to raise the cap.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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