School vouchers have been re-branded as Scholarship Tax Credits. Can they be fixed through reform?

 

The simple answer…of course.

Full on privatization/voucher advocates are growing increasingly irritable across Oklahoma. You can see it in their demeanor across social media, the thousands upon thousands of dollars in advertising they are shoveling out to market something Oklahomans have unequivocally said “NO” to.

“Tax credit scholarships” were sold to Oklahoma taxpayers as a way to help out some of the most impoverished kids attend a school that could help them out.

Like the wonderful work that Positive Tomorrows does in OKC – Oklahoma’s only school specifically for homeless kids. This school helps homeless kids transition into public schools across the metro and works to stabilize the families.

Or the the amazing work Crossover Preparatory Academy does in Tulsa. Students are able to attend these specialized programs because of their need and a scholarship makes sense for them.

Unfortunately, these programs are outliers. Many millions through this program go to families making nearly $143,000 per year. Hardly the “impoverished” kids that the program purports to serve.

Oklahoma taxpayers and the legislature rightly remain completely opposed to any kind of welfare program for the wealthy, a government subsidy or discount coupon for the wealthy that comes at the expense of kids served in all 77 counties by public schools.

Colorado, Texas, Missouri, and New Mexico? They spend $0 on vouchers or tax credit vouchers. We already spend $8 MILLION per year!

Opportunity Scholarships in their current format are a mess in Oklahoma. But with transparency, accountability, and need-based REFORM to only serve those children on FREE Lunches like our neighbors to the north in the Kansas – Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program.

Through this program, low-income Kansas families in the lowest performing public schools have an honest OPPORTUNITY should they need one. They don’t have to compete for spots against families making 3x the median income for a family of four like in Oklahoma’s current program.

And the best part? We wouldn’t need to lose any additional tax revenue through Scholarship Tax Credits – the Kansas program sees a LESS than $1.5M annual impact to lost tax revenue.

Unlike Oklahoma’s current $5M impact and the push we saw in the last session for upwards of $80M annual revenue loss.

We are in a budget crisis. Now is NOT the time for tax giveaways for those who do not need help.

We can still do great GOOD for Oklahoma kids by stopping the waste, fraud, and abuse. We can get this program BACK on the right track – in line with the original mission of this legislation.


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What is a voucher?

Essentially a voucher is when the state of Oklahoma takes money directly out of public education and paying for students who choose to receive a private education instead of attending public schools.

While championed as something other than a voucher, tax credit scholarships originated in Arizona as a way to circumvent church-state restrictions that were creating legal challenges for voucher programs.

That tax credit scholarships accomplish the same exact goal by indirectly routing the money to a private school via tax code loopholes is a distinction that makes zero difference in an economic sense. Law Professor James Dwyer of William & Mary Law School makes this point eloquently:

 

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If I give my daughters money for the movies but limit them to one of three currently playing movies, they know that I am paying for the movie, not them. If my daughters call me from school and say they need to pay fifty dollars right away in order to get a yearbook (teenagers not being known for excellence at advance planning ) and I tell them to use their own money for now and get reimbursed by me when they get home, they understand that I am the one who bought the yearbook, having decided that it was a worthy use of my money.

Likewise, if my daughter is at basketball practice and calls to tell me she needs fifty dollars right away for the team sneakers, but my ex-wife is picking her up from practice rather than me, I would ask whether her mother could give her the money now and get reimbursed by me later. My daughter would understand that it was I who paid for the sneakers, not her and not her mother, again based on my decision that it is a worthy use of my money. Finally, if they needed fifty dollars for a yearbook or sneakers and they owed me fifty dollars from some previous transaction, and I told them that instead of repaying that debt they should just pay for the yearbook or sneakers themselves and call it even, they would recognize that I had effectively paid for the yearbook or sneakers. Such understanding does not require great economic sophistication.

Thus, with every type of program I include within the description of “voucher programs,” the state knowingly directs some public money to private schools explicitly or implicitly approved by the state …¹

 


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¹Dwyer, J.G., No Accounting for School Vouchers, 48 Wake Forest L. Rev. 361, 382-83 (2013).