Bipartisan hopes: Hamilton, Denney make the case for opportunity scholarships
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Published: 29-Apr-2011

Senate Bill 969, creating an opportunity scholarship program funded by tax credits, passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives this week. State Rep. Rebecca Hamilton of south Oklahoma City, a Democrat, was one of the half dozen legislators who rose to speak in favor of the legislation. 

Republican Lee Denny of Cushing, House author of the measure, closed debate in favor of the measure.

While passage of the bill represents a significant development in the history of education policy in Oklahoma, Rep. Hamilton addressed the issue in terms of the practical effect it will, she believes, have on her constituents. While many of them impoverished, they hope for better education and prospects for their children, she said. 

In Wednesday’s debate, Hamilton told colleagues, “I am speaking today for the children of House District 89. If I went against this bill, I really feel that I would be a complete ingrate, and I would not be doing what’s right for the people who put me up here and who trusted me with their lives when they did it.

“I represent children (and I mean all of the children that I represent) who go to schools that are essentially factories. Those schools not only do not provide them with the kind of education that they need to have a future, but they destroy their souls while they’re at it. The schools are dangerous. The schools are dehumanizing. You don’t do this to human beings, and yet we do this to human beings. If this bill will help any of those children at all, then I have to vote for it, and I have to speak for it.

“I wish there was a way that we could help them all, and I know that this won’t help them all. But I cannot turn my back on the ones that it will help.

“I have to tell you that since 1980, when I was first elected …, I have introduced many bills to try to do something about the inner city schools, and they were killed every single time. The arguments that were used to kill them were essentially the same arguments that are being used against this bill today.

“I wish that we had a public education system that provided the kind of educational experience for every child in Oklahoma where they had a hope and a future. But it does not, and we do not.

“The number one thing lacking in my district among my children is hope. You take hope away from people, and you destroy them. You take hope away from people, and these are not chimps, these are people, with all the drive and intelligence that is inherent in every human being, and you get something that is dangerous, and destructive, and that ends up costing you a lot more money, if money is what this is all about. Hopeless people are dangerous people. That’s what these schools give these children right now: no hope. That’s what this bill does give them: hope.

“If this bill goes into law, one of the first things I’m going to do is use my letters that we get to send out up here to the kids in my district and say ‘this program is available. I want you to apply for it. If you have problems…’ -- and they will with the paperwork –‘I want you to call my office, and I will help you.’

I am going to contact all of my parents, because my parents are scared, they’re scared of any kind of authority, and I’m going to walk them through it, and convince them that they can do this without fear, because I’ll protect them. I have to tell my constituents that a lot, ‘I will protect you. You can call the police because I will protect you. I will call the police for you’ because they’re scared to do it. ‘You can walk through this, because I will help you.’

“I know that is a very alien thing for some of you with districts where you have constituents who don’t even really need representatives because they can fight for themselves. But that’s what I deal with everyday.

“I’m going to vote for this bill. I co-authored this bill, because I owe that to the people who have trusted me in election after election after election for all these years to come out here and take care of their interest in government. I urge all of you to do the same.”

Rep. Denny closed debate on the issue. She thanked colleagues who had supported the bill, then refuted contentions made by House Minority Leader Scott Inman of Del City, assertions that foreshadowed a press release listing opposition arguments that was circulated in the hours after debate concluded. 

Denny said, “I wanted to start out by refuting what the Representative from Del City said. I don’t know where he read in the bill about cherry picking, or that we’re trying to help private schools. This bill is about helping kids. It was designed to help kids, not schools. We do a lot out here to help schools; this is designed to help kids. It’s designed to help parents of those kids that know that their kids are in a failing situation that’s not working for them, and they want a better opportunity. I don’t know a single parent that doesn’t want what’s best for their kids. Up and down, it has no economic boundaries, it has no socioeconomic, no class boundaries. Parents want what’s best for their kids. 

“This bill opens the door of opportunity for kids [who] are in failing schools, kids that have no hope, kids that are trapped in these poor schools, an opportunity to do better. I don’t know one parent that wouldn’t want to take advantage of this. 

“This also helps schools in rural areas that don’t have the means that the kids in the cities and suburbs have, opportunity to provide educational opportunities that they can only get in larger places; things that will make them more competitive in the workplace, and when they’re ready for college. 

“I am very excited about this. I’m not going to belabor all the points that have been belabored before by my colleagues, because they’ve done a great job.”

She continued, “[W]hen you cast your vote in a minute, … you think about the man walking along the beach, picking up starfish hurling them back in the ocean. The beach is covered with starfish. Someone asks him ‘what are you doing?’ and he says ‘throwing these starfish back in the ocean.’ And they say, ‘you’re not going to be able to pick up all of these star fish.’ The man bends down and picks up a star fish and throws it in the ocean saying ‘it mattered to that one. I saved that one.’ 

“If this program saves one kid, and gets them the education they need, then I think it’s been a success. We saved that one. I applaud the Representative from inner city Oklahoma City that she’s going to help her constituents walk through the program, make sure that they can do it right and make sure they get to the school they need. 

“I applaud the rural legislators that are willing to step up, and get the private dollars, dollars that the tax treasury would never see. Corporations shelter these dollars, individuals look for tax credits all the time, tax deductions, how can I shelter my dollars? This is just a way to get those private dollars into our public schools. I’m very excited about this program. 

“I would urge you to think about kids when you cast this vote. Don’t think about schools. We do a lot of stuff out here for schools. But you think about our Oklahoma kids, and you’ve heard me say a thousand times that we’re competing in a global marketplace. We need to prepare our kids globally. We need to do what’s right for our kids globally. 

“This is a first step in doing what’s right for our kids. This is not a voucher. This is not public money going to private schools. This is private dollars going to private schools, private dollars going to rural public schools. I urge you to give Oklahoma parents and opportunity for choice to do what’s right for their kids.”

After Rep. Denney’s speech, the roll call vote unfolded, with S.B. 969 clearing the House 64-33.
 
Sen. Dan Newberry of Sand Springs/Tulsa, principal sponsor of the bill, said he plans to accept the rural benefits program added to the measure. The bill cleared the upper chamber 30-14 in earlier deliberations. If senators pass the revised version, it will go to Governor Mary Fallin for her decision. 

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