Oklahoma voters voiced their support for education choice in November 2016, rejecting most of the candidates running on a platform of limiting choice to public schools.
A group of 31 public education proponents, including parents and current and former teachers the media labeled the “Teachers’ Caucus,” ran for state office, but only seven won.
The American Federation for Children (AFC), a school choice advocacy group that spent $210,000 in Oklahoma legislative races in 2016, listed 14 pro-school choice candidates the organization supported who were elected or reelected.
Voters also rejected State Question 779, which would have increased the state sales tax by 1 percent to spend more on public education and give public school teachers a $5,000 pay raise.
‘Lost in Big Numbers’
AFC National Communications Director Matt Frendewey says the anti-choice lobby’s tactics ultimately failed.
“The narrative they spun was all these teachers were fed up [with] not getting paid enough and not being supported, so they all rose up and ran for office,” Frendewey said. “It sounds great. It’s a very good story, [and] it’s something that you’d love to be able to believe, but it’s just not true. The reality is this: Folks who support public education and support only public education at the expense of students who need school choice, got together, recruited a couple teachers [and] school administrators. They recruited only the pro-public school, anti-school choice candidates and ran them across the state. They didn’t even vet them, and they lost in big numbers.”
A few days before the election, Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction, turned herself in at the Oklahoma County jail and was released on bond after being charged with colluding with the activist group Oklahomans for Public School Excellence to take illegal donations in 2014.
“Just a week before the general election, [Hofmeister]—who was not friendly or very supportive of private school choice—[as well as] the executive director of the Oklahoma Education Association and the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association were all indicted for colluding with one another and illegally funneling money to each other in a previous election cycle,” Frendewey said.
“That speaks volumes to the extent the anti-school choice lobby will go to try to win elections,” Frendewey said. “Not just cheating, but breaking the law to the point that they’ve been indicted.”
‘More Hateful than Normal’
State Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman), who in November won his second term in the Oklahoma Senate against 2016 Oklahoma “Teacher of the Year” Shawn Sheehan, says the race was “very partisan, very ideological, and very hateful.”
“Because I was up against the top educator in the state, maybe that made some teachers more hateful than normal,” Standridge said. “Some teachers got extraordinarily hateful, calling people names and things. I’m a big boy and it doesn’t bother me, but it’s almost like cyberbullying, the way they treat people that don’t agree with them. I know it’s been a rough year, but that doesn’t excuse the rhetoric. How do they speak to others? Are they teaching kids to bully?
“I don’t want to paint all teachers with that brush, but if your kid gets that teacher, a private, Christian school looks pretty good,” Standridge said. “If you’re a single mom, that’s not an option. I hope we come out of a year like this and say that school choice is right for Oklahoma. Oklahoma needs to step up to the plate and give parents a little more flexibility.”
Parents Support School Choice
Brandon Dutcher, senior vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, says despite the partisan campaign rhetoric and legal charges emanating from the education establishment, Oklahomans strongly support school choice.
“We know from voluminous survey data that parents’ appetite for school choice is still strong,” Dutcher said. “Heck, a month before the election, a SoonerPoll survey discovered that nearly four in 10 Oklahoma teachers would choose a private school or homeschooling for their own children.
“Rather than continuing to penalize parents financially for raising their children in accordance with their consciences, it’s time for Oklahoma policymakers to enact and expand policies—vouchers, tax credits, ESAs, and more—which secure parental rights,” Dutcher said.
Jenni White ([email protected]) writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.