Oklahoma Empowerment Act Moves Forward

The controversial Oklahoma Empowerment Act moved forward in Senate this week, but not without some changes.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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Oklahoma empowerment
STAND AND DELIVER, Edward James Olmos, 1988, (c)Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

A controversial education bill in Oklahoma narrowly passed committees in February. Heading to the Senate, the bill advanced, but not before undergoing some significant changes. Senate Bill 1647, better known throughout Oklahoma as the Empowerment Act, seeks to push school choice reform within the state’s education system. 

After marginally passing the committee in February, the Oklahoma Empowerment Act passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday with a 12-8 vote. All Democratic members voted against the bill with some Republicans joining as well. The bill did however undergo some vital changes before being approved. Going forward, the Empowerment Act will no longer offer funds to students who are homeschooled. Also, the amended changes added income cap limitations for households. 

The bill grew tremendous support from Republican legislators in Oklahoma. Senate member Greg Treat, one of the bill’s authors, has been talking up the Oklahoma Empowerment Act for quite some time. According to Treat, the bill could raise the state appropriation for education while holding public school funding steady. Most importantly, Treat pushes the bill to keep school choice in the hands of caregivers.

The goal of the Oklahoma Empowerment Act aligns with advocates of school choice. The legislation would set aside the funds for the education of each child in a separate savings account. Caregivers then can choose to apply those funds to private schools and other educational costs. Previously, backers of the bill touted it as a means to fund homeschooling, but with the amendments this week, homeschooling is off the board. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt, a stout supporter of the Oklahoma Empowerment legislation, tweeted his support for the bill passing the Senate Committee as he called it “positive news for parents.” On February 22nd, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Education also shared his support for the bill via social media. Ryan Walter’s tweeted that the caretakers should be in the “driver’s seat” when it comes to decisions on their children’s education. 

As appealing as the Oklahoma Empowerment Act remains to many in the state, the bill also has its proponents. Democratic senators Joanna Dossett, J.J. Dossett, and Carri Hicks debated the bill during Tuesday’s meeting. Concerns that the bill lacked accountability not only for families who might misuse the funds, but also the lack of accountability for private entities was a major concern for Democrats. Many pointed out that private schools have no educational quality standards whereas public schools have set high benchmarks. The idea of possibly taking away that funding and giving it to the private sector without accountability is worrisome to many. 

To rebut his proponent’s words, Treat told Senate members that the bill called for 10 percent of all the state’s education savings accounts to be audited each year for misuse. However, this did not answer the concerns of how private schools would be held accountable for appropriating the public funds in the Oklahoma Empowerment Act. 

Now that SB 1647 has been amended and approved within the Senate Committee, the Oklahoma Empowerment bill next will head onto the Senate chamber. Should it pass a Senate-wide vote, it would move on to the House, where it will face its greatest hurdle yet. Already expected to face heavy opposition, Speaker Charles McCall said he does not plan on giving the bill a proper hearing. The Republican speaker is against the bill because it doesn’t support the statewide education reform. McCall believes the bill neglects rural lawmakers’ representation. Doubting it would help their communities, McCall stated that rural school communities are limited in education choices, therefore the bill creates a geographical issue.