Tuesday, November 10, 2020

OCPA column: Giving hope to Oklahoma’s most vulnerable


Giving hope to Oklahoma’s most vulnerable
By Jonathan Small

Hope is among life’s most precious commodities. Oklahoma lawmakers can increase the stock of that commodity and provide it to Oklahoma’s most vulnerable citizens by fully funding parental school choice for all who want it.

This year’s pandemic-created challenges have been felt by all, but not shared equally, including in education.

The closure of physical sites for in-person instruction has created hardship for families at all income levels, but the burden is greatest for those of limited means who must forgo work opportunities to watch children during the day. And the virtual learning options provided in lieu of classroom instruction have often been subpar at best.

Even parents who do not face such harsh choices want to make sure they do not endure this limited menu of education options for any reason in the future.

That’s why lawmakers should provide fully funded parental school choice options for all who want them. It’s time we gave parents greater control over their children’s education.

There are several ways to achieve that goal. The first is to expand the “digital wallet” program Gov. Kevin Stitt launched this year. That program, currently funded with federal COVID-relief funds, provides $1,500 to low-income families to spend on educational supplies.

Lawmakers can expand equality of opportunity and make the program available to all Oklahomans, putting at least $5,000 in state funds in each account and allowing families to use the money for services, including private-school tuition. That alone would open the door of education opportunity for families across the state.

Lawmakers should also provide a significant refundable tax credit for families to offset education expenses. That would be comparable to the Earned Income Tax Credit that provides cash payments to low-income Oklahomans, and it would allow more parents to cover the costs of better schools for a child.

Best of all, that would effectively increase overall education funding in Oklahoma.

Legislators should also raise the cap on Oklahoma’s scholarship tax-credit program, which has benefitted thousands of low-income children. Tax-credit scholarships have helped numerous children escape from failing schools and enter private schools that provide better academics, personal safety and (often) moral grounding.

For far too long, private schools have been mostly restricted to children in families with higher income, yet that doesn’t have to be the case. Private schools across Oklahoma are ready and eager to accept children from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds. Some schools are already leading the way, such as Crossover Preparatory Academy in Tulsa, Little Light Christian School, Mission Academy and Positive Tomorrows in Oklahoma City, which serve low-income, children of the incarcerated, those recovering from addiction and homeless children.

For parents worried about their children’s future, Oklahoma lawmakers can offer the antidote of hope, optimism, and justified belief in a better future—if they are ready to lead on parental school choice for all who want it.

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

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