One of the most heartbreaking votes took place last week as the House rejected an important reform that had already received approval of the Senate. The proposal, named the "New Hope Scholarship Program," would have provided tax incentives to those willing to donate to a scholarship fund so students who were trapped in failing inner city schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa could attend private schools.
The Senate author of this bill, Senator James Williamson, described it as "a two-for-one deal. Two dollars of education for low-income students for every one dollar of effect on the sate budget."
As I have mentioned in my previous updates, as a member of the Human Services Committee, I see firsthand that there are now 19,000 children in state custody. As a member of the Corrections Committee, I know that Oklahoma prisons are filled to capacity. There are no easy solutions to these problems because the massive cost falls upon the taxpayers; but these challenges, if left unchecked, will eventually be too large for the government to handle and will continue to usurp more and more of your taxpayer dollars.
It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. It is obvious that a key component of the crises that I described is the failure of the public education system in Oklahoma's impoverished inner city neighborhoods. The New Hope Scholarship Program was designed to recognize this failure and try to solve it. Most importantly, it was designed to save the lives of the children who are facing the tremendous challenges of trying to get an education in a crime-infested impoverished setting.
It is wrong to continue forcing children to attend public schools where crime is high and test scores are low. With the exception of the pro-life issue, I believe this is one of the most significant moral issues the Legislature has voted on since I have been a member.
The opposition to the New Hope Scholarship Program comes from many in the public education industry. For some inexplicable reason, rural schools are especially opposed to this idea. They seem to think that any steps taken to encourage private schooling will hurt their funding. Ironically enough, some of the education money that would be freed up by the program would have gone back into the state education fund formula where it would have been re-distributed to all schools, including rural schools. In other words, rural schools opposed this reform even though it would have provided them with more funding.
As a result, the vote on the issue demonstrated the rural vs. city divide. Many rural lawmakers opposed the reform, and metro lawmakers often supported the change. There were some exceptions, as some rural lawmakers supported the bill despite the possible negative consequences from back home, they were willing to take a stand and do the right thing to try and rescue the kids who are trapped in the cycle of failure.
I find it hard to understand how lawmakers can turn a blind eye to the plight faced by the children trapped in failing schools, and I am committed to continuing to support these types of reforms in the future. I am especially appreciative of Senator Williamson and Representative Tad Jones who have led a valiant effort for this bill. I also was very impressed by the courage of Representatives Jabar Shumate and Rebecca Hamilton who were the two Democrat Representatives who broke rank with their caucus and not only voted for the New Hope program, but aggressively debated for its passage.
But for now, thousands of Oklahoma kids will remain trapped in the cycle of failure. This is wrong!