OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As Oklahomans approach the November election, the candidates for State Superintendent are staking their positions on school vouchers.
“Many of our rural schools would probably have to close down because of these vouchers,” said Jena Nelson, Democratic candidate for State Superintendent.
Her opponent is Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s Education Secretary.
“If a parent says, my child learns best in this environment, we’ve got to give that parents the opportunity to make sure their kid has the best learning possible,” said Walters.
Vouchers are redeemable checks that parents can use to send their children to private schools of their choice.
The vouchers are publicly funded. Every county contributes to the fund that would pay for the program.
SB1647 was a bill from last session. Known as the ‘Oklahoma Empowerment Act’, it did not pass through the Senate.
Logan Phillips, Republican lawmaker from Tulsa, broke down what it would cost each county if the Oklahoma Empowerment Act became law.
“If you don’t take any population change from a rural communities or rural schools or move anyone from private education to private education, you still lose hundreds of millions of dollars out of our educational budget,” said Phillips.
He estimates that rural schools, an example being Okfuskee County, would lose up to $350,000. The total cost for public education would be around $132 million, according to his analysis.
The reason being, the money contributed from each county would go into a fund to pay for the vouchers.
But in rural communities with little or no access to private schools, those students would not benefit from the program. That county’s money would essentially go to other students that end up using the vouchers.
The money would either get spent on private education or it would remain in the fund for the rest of the year.
“If a kid goes to another school, that money will follow that kids to the other school,” said Walters, disagreeing with the idea that schools would lose money from the voucher program. “But if the kids stay in your school, you’re going to get a lot more money for you school.”
Jena Nelson said her priority is to focus on more funding for public schools.
“What we would rather see is more federal funding and more of our state funding go into public education to make sure that our schools are fully funded, so that our kids have the best education possible,” said Nelson, a teacher who left the classroom to campaign for the election.
On Tuesday, KFOR will speak to candidates for governor about school vouchers, and we will ask a rural school superintendent how vouchers might impact their district.