Oklahoma religious private schools look to expand in light of new tax credits

The Parental Choice Tax Credit Act could be a boon for parochial schools, religious leaders say

By: - September 19, 2023 5:30 am
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OKLAHOMA CITY — New private school tax credits have some Oklahoma religious officials looking at expanding the number of parochial schools and increasing enrollment options to accommodate more students.

The new tax credits for families who send their children to private school has the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City considering reopening some of its previously shuttered schools, said Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma.

“We’re talking probably 20 schools, maybe more,” Farley said. “That’s a 15 to 20-year plan, but that’s the potential we have with these tax credits.”

The GOP-led Oklahoma Legislature this year passed the Parental Choice Tax Credit Act to provide refundable tax credits to families whose children attend private school. The credits will range from $5,000 to $7,500 per child depending on a family’s household income.

Lawmakers capped total funding for the credits at $150 million in 2024, $200 million in 2025 and $250 million in 2026.

The tax credits won’t become available until next year. Families may be able to start applying Dec. 8, although that date could change.

School choice tax credits take effect, but no rules yet for Oklahoma

Private school supporters, though, are in wait-and-see mode as the Oklahoma Tax Commission works out the details of how the new tax credits will work, Farley said.

The Catholic Church currently operates about 30 private schools across the state, Farley said.

The church has some recently closed schools — like those that taught pre-K through eighth grade in Guthrie and Lawton — that would be fairly easy to reopen, Farley said. There are also some older schools that have been closed for a while that would need some facility upgrades first, he said.

The Catholic Church has closed schools across the state for various reasons, but Farley said the COVID pandemic created new financial pressures that became the death knell for many.

The more parents that take advantage of the tax credits, the greater the need for more private schools, Farley said. Some Catholic schools already have waiting lists. Adding more teachers and classrooms to existing schools is also an option, he said.

In light of the new tax credits, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City recently surveyed its members to gauge their interest in seeking Catholic school education for their children.

Because the tax credits start halfway through the school year, it’s hard to gauge what the uptake might be at the start of the program, Farley said.

Parents will be less inclined to pull their child out of a public district mid-year to enroll them in a private school, but Farley said he anticipates a rush in applications for the tax credits in fall 2024.

“What I’m telling our staff is this is potentially going to be a 21st Century Land Run,” he said.

Religious private schools benefiting from the tax credits blurs the line of separation between church and state, said Clark Frailey, executive director of the nonprofit Pastors for Oklahoma Kids.

The tax credits also take away state funding that could be going to help public schools, which educate the vast majority of children across the state, he said.

“We know that the church is not in a position in Oklahoma to take care of 700,000 kids,” Frailey said.

Although lawmakers poured $625 million in new funding into common education this year, critics of the tax credits have said the money earmarked for private school families would be better off going to public schools.

Amanda Anderson, executive director of the Flo and Morris Mizel Jewish Community Day School in Tulsa, said she may be able to enroll more students after the tax credits take effect, although she doesn’t expect enrollment to dramatically increase.

Just over 50 students are currently enrolled, and she estimates the school that serves children through the fifth grade would hit capacity at around 60 students.

For now, Anderson said she’s waiting for information from the state on how the tax credits will work. She has questions about whether the state will offer pre-payment options for low-income families that can’t afford to pay private school tuition up front and wait for the tax credit later.

“I think it will help us to grow, but we are the only Jewish day school in the state,” she said. “I’m not looking to necessarily expand or open a new school.”

Shannon Statton, principal of Sacred Heart Catholic School in El Reno, said the tax credit could be a boon for families who have limited means to afford private school tuition. About half of the students attending the pre-K through sixth grade school receive some sort of financial aid, she said.

Annual tuition for Catholic families is about $4,200 and tuition for non-Catholics is about $5,400.

“It will be life-changing for our existing families … and for potential families who thought that Catholic education, because of having to pay tuition and everything else, would never ever be an option,” Statton said.

She wants 100% of the families with children attending Sacred Heart to apply for the tax credits that will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Statton is optimistic that Sacred Heart could increase enrollment and offer additional classes as a result of the new tax credits. The school currently only has one class per grade, but she thinks that could change. Sacred Heart could also potentially expand to offer instruction through eighth grade, she said.

“I’m just so excited for our families to have this opportunity,” Statton said. “It’s a blessing.”


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Carmen Forman
Carmen Forman

Carmen covers state government, politics and health care from Oklahoma City. A Norman native, she previously worked in Arizona and Virginia before she began reporting on the Oklahoma Capitol.