This election cycle, candidates for state office who supported school choice issues were targeted for opposition by a group of Oklahoma teachers and educators collectively referred to as the “Teacher Caucus” who often engaged in ugly rhetoric and questionable campaign methods. November 8th, Oklahomans not only resoundingly repudiated a majority of Teacher Caucus-backed candidates, but a state question which would have raised state taxes to provide state teachers a pay raise.
Pro-Public + Anti-Choice = A Losing Proposition
“The reality is this – folks who support public education and only support public education at the expense of students who need school choice, got together [and] recruited a couple teachers, school administrators – they recruited just pro-public school/anti-school choice candidates – and ran them across the state,” said Matt Frendeway, National Communications Director for the American Federation for Children (AFC), an organization which supports pro-school choice candidates.
The platform for Teacher Caucus candidates paralleled the view that teachers, fed up due to lack of pay and support, rose up to run for political office in order to force systemic change.
“They weave this narrative, but where they had candidates that were strongly just pro-public school and anti-school choice, they lost in big numbers,” Frendewey said.
“Many candidates backed by the AFC were victorious, sometimes in head-to-head matchups with members of the public-education community who were staunchly opposed to parental choice,” said Brandon Dutcher, Senior Vice President of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs who offers State Senators Dan Newberry (R-Tulsa) and Kyle Loveless (R-OKC) - both of whom authored legislation regarding Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship and ran successful campaigns opposite Teacher Caucus candidates - as examples of Oklahoma pro-choice wins.
“Both defeated challengers from the so-called Teacher Caucus,” Dutcher said.
Charges of Illegality Dog Oklahoma Choice Foes
The week before the general election, Oklahoma State School Superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Education Association, Lela Odom and former Executive Director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, Steven Crawford, were all indicted for colluding with one another to illegally funnel money into a PAC called Oklahomans for Public School Excellence.
“This speaks volumes to the extent the anti-school choice lobby will go to try to win elections,” said Frendewey. “That spoke volumes not just to why their candidates lost in great number, but also the extent they’ll go to try and win.”
“There’s nothing wrong with “dark money” – that’s just an ominous-sounding phrase used –usually by people who disagree with the donors’ electoral preferences – to describe healthy and important First Amendment activities,” said Dutcher. “But you have to play by the rules, like AFC did. The district attorney doesn’t like it if he thinks you’re not playing by the rules.”
Very Partisan, Very Ideological, Very Hateful
Rob Standridge (R-Norman) ran a successful campaign for a second term in the Senate against Shawn Sheehan, named 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.
“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.”
Standridge said this year’s election opened his eyes to his district in a new way because of a race he described as “very partisan, very ideological and very hateful”. While he recognizes the rhetoric originates from a small minority of teachers, the year’s election interactions have reinforced his position on school choice issues.
“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?” he asked.
“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. 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,” Standridge said.
School Choice Appetite Still Strong
Brandon Dutcher maintains that even without the partisan campaign rhetoric and legal charges emanating from the education establishment in the mix, school choice is important to Oklahomans.
“We know from voluminous survey data that parents’ appetite for school choice is still strong. Heck, a month before the election a SoonerPoll survey discovered that nearly 4 in 10 Oklahoma teachers would choose a private school or homeschooling for their own children,” Dutcher said.
“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, ESA’s and more – which secure parental rights.”