OKLAHOMA CITY—Senate Bill 1647—known as the Oklahoma Empowerment Act—is drawing increasing concern from rural lawmakers who worry the legislation could reduce state funding dollars for rural public schools. The proposed legislation is a “school choice” bill that would allow any student to use state funds to cover costs associated with private school or homeschool attendance through the use of “school vouchers.”
Rural public school advocates adamantly oppose the legislation, foreseeing a significant negative impact on rural school systems across the state. The Oklahoma Education Association has estimated the proposed “voucher” system could remove a minimum of $260 million from public education funding in Oklahoma.
“School vouchers put Oklahoma’s public schools directly in the bull’s eye,” said American Farmers & Ranchers (AFR) Cooperative President Scott Blubaugh. “This bill encourages families to remove their students—and state funding—from public schools and instead deliver those dollars to a private entity that is not held to transparency or state education standards.”
AFR Cooperative echoes rural lawmakers and public school advocates, with specific concerns that a loss in funding could further reduce education quality and extracurricular opportunities—such as FFA, sports, and music and arts programs—for rural students, and ultimately hasten the closure of some rural public school systems.
“Public schools are crucial to the health and vitality of any community,” said Blubaugh. “But, when a rural public school dies, the small town dies with it. Many of our rural communities are struggling just to survive. God forbid this bill further deprive our rural communities of a pillar of their very existence.”
Senate Bill 1647 has passed the Senate Education Committee and Senate Appropriations and is now slated for the Oklahoma State Senate floor. If the bill passes in the Senate, Speaker of the House Charles McCall, R-Atoka, does not plan to hear the bill in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
“I applaud Speaker McCall for his steadfast dismissal of the school voucher bill,” said Blubaugh. “This bill will most certainly lead to fewer dollars reaching our rural schools and now is a terrible time to divert funding away from public school systems. Oklahoma’s public schools are already often critically underfunded and the last two years have put an incredible strain on public school educators and students alike. Frankly, we need more energy and funding invested in public schools, not less.”
The 2022 AFR Cooperative Policy Committee, a diverse group of rural Oklahomans, directly addressed the prospect of school vouchers in this year’s AFR Special Orders of Business: “We support all public education-designated revenue from ad valorem taxation and any other common local, state, or federal government funding remaining in the public school system and not being transferred by voucher or any other method.”