OKLAHOMA CITY — School vouchers survived a close vote in the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee on Monday, thus avoiding the trap door that swallowed them a year ago.
House Bill 2949, by Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, advanced on a 9-8 vote. Votes from Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, and Speaker Pro Tem Lee Denney, R-Cushing, were necessary to get the measure through the committee, where a similar bill had failed on a 9-9 tie a year ago.
The speaker and speaker pro tem can vote on any bill in committee but generally do so only when needed for a majority.
The difference from a year ago was that Rep. Dennis Casey, R-Morrison, a former educator who voted against the measure in 2015, has been removed from the committee and not replaced. All other votes were exactly the same as a year ago.
Nine Republicans voted for the measure. Four — committee Chairwoman Ann Coody of Lawton, Katie Henke of Tulsa, Jadine Nollan of Sand Springs and Todd Thomsen of Ada — joined the committee’s four Democrats, including Jeannie McDaniel of Tulsa, in opposition.
Area Republican legislators voting for the measure were Chuck Strohm of Jenks and Michael Rogers of Broken Arrow.
Gov. Mary Fallin, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley and several influential conservative and school-choice groups lobbied hard for HB 2949, which is officially called the Oklahoma Education Savings Account Act.
“Education savings account” is the current term for school vouchers.
Opposing the bill are school boards and school administrators who fear it would further erode public education’s financial resources and those who believe it constitutes an unwise and perhaps illegal transfer of public money to private hands.
Nelson said legislative staff was unable to determine how much the education savings accounts might cost.
The bill would instruct the Department of Education and the state treasurer to deposit money into individual accounts for students who choose not to attend their local public schools. The amount deposited would range from 30 percent to 90 percent of the per-pupil expenditure of the local school, depending on household income and whether the child has special needs.
The funds could be accessed only through approved schools and vendors. They could be used to pay for a variety of education services, including private school tuition, home school curricula and tutoring, but not to buy computers or other technology or pay for normal transportation. Converting the account to cash would be considered fraud.
Opponents and even some of those who voted for the bill said they are concerned the measure amounts to a “blank check” that gives away taxpayers’ money without sufficient accountability.
Nelson contends it is a way out for parents and children who are stuck in schools not meeting their needs and in the end should not affect per-pupil funding of public schools.