Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Paul Abner is a minister of the Gospel – and more. For starters, he is the father of three delightful children.
Jack, Julianna and Cloe accompanied their father to a recent speaking engagement where he discussed educational options in the Sooner State, including his hopes for expansion of school choices to more parents and children.
He said in an interview that presently, after some 36 years in ordained ministry and more than two decades traveling through Oklahoma, he is focused on “bringing faith-based men and women into the public square to support school choice.”
A veteran organizer of worthy causes, Rev. Abner was drawn toward school choice activism by Todd Pauley, long-time civic activist, and began to work recently with Faith Leaders for Educational Empowerment. After the practical work of developing logos and such things, he began to labor in the vineyards -- reaching out to other ministers. It was in the course of that new work he “encountered many ministers who are also school teachers.”
While many exhibited a natural sympathy for educational choice, some of them have also challenged him – perhaps inevitably in a state like ours – among other things, sharing a fear that private school programs would beat local public school football teams.
At the other end of responses he has encountered, Abner shared nuggets from his conversations with people like Deborah – an inner city Assembly of God preacher who says direct empowerment of parents and children to seek faith-based schooling options would be “the greatest thing that could happen for our kids.” She wants to break the generational curse of bad outcomes for minority students in urban schools.
Then, there’s his affiliation with Tony Miller of The Gate, a suburban congregation where the 2,500 members, Abner detailed, desire, “To help the poor. To lift up people stuck in an educational rut.”
Abner continues with such outreach, dialogue and direct action.
Already Abner and colleagues leading the Faith Leaders group have brought hundreds of ministers into the cause. It is a natural extension, he believes part of a spiritual journey, that flows from his original work as a youth minister.
Long ago, he bridged into professional affiliation with a national group known as the Men and Women of Issachar. The Scriptural reference is to the Book of Chronicles, Chapter 12, verse 32 and leaders who “understood the times, and understood what Israel should do.”
In the midst of his best years in such ventures, he got a call from a friend one day, inviting him to volunteer for the campaign of a political novice, a Southern Baptist youth minister working at the Falls Creek summer camp program. That was in 2009, and he soon agreed to help the long-shot campaign of a fellow named James Lankford.
In 2010, Lankford won a crowded Republican primary for the U.S. House seat that had been occupied by Mary Fallin, before her election as governor.
The effort of which Abner was part was “the biggest outreach into the faith community in Oklahoma political history.” (Not only that, Lankford had the best application of social media and the Internet in state history, but that’s a story for another day.)
After two good terms in the lower chamber of Congress, Lankford ran for the U.S. Senate. For that successful campaign Abner was one of the paid staff members. Then, last year, he was part of a conference for ministers held on a parallel track at the time of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) in Oklahoma City. Along the way, earlier this year, he found time to assist with the Franklin Graham prayer rally at the Oklahoma State Capitol, which drew some 6,000 people to join impassioned prayers for revival and moral renewal across America.
As for the lanky Lankford, known for his perfect radio voice and diminutive size, in 2014 he easily won the race to finish Tom Coburns unfinished six-year term. This year, he is seeking a full six-year hitch in the upper chamber of Congress.
Abner’s involvement in electoral politics was not the path in life he might have predicted for himself four decades ago, but as it unfolded, “I recognized the voice of God leading me to get more people of faith involved in the process of public policy.”
To be clear about Abner’s broad interests, he presently is supportive of the public school bond issue for the Piedmont district. He has been encouraging votes for the proposition in the faith community, and has discussed the issue with other leaders.
The thumb-nail narrative above brings us back to Abner’s current work with the Faith Leaders group, which includes Rev. Craig Eidson, who serves as pastor at a metro-area church.
Eidsons wife is a public school administrator. In the course of their marriage, their children have been educated at home, in a private school, and in public schools. At every stage, they have wanted, he said, “to do is what’s best for the kids.”
Eidson reflects, “You hear that a lot – do what’s best for the kids. The question is if that’s what people are really for. Some people ask, ‘How can you say that and not be for creating smaller classes?’” Like most people who are knowledgeable about education, he believes smaller class sizes and better teacher pay are worthy objectives.
But, he has concluded since joining the Faith Leaders group, some people in education “just don’t want vouchers.”
He has a different view: “Vouchers cannot hurt, and they are almost certain to help.”
Eidson pointed toward a research study which found choice is “more effective than smaller class sizes and mentoring. No studies have found that school choice was/is negative.” In fact, “18 of 19 studies showed public schools also improved” when choice programs allowed families also to access private education.
As he looks across America these days, Eidson says, “We need God’s help. Allow parents to have total control of their children’s education. When we say we’re for what is best for the kids, do we really mean it? Or is it all about the agenda for public schools?
“Most people know the right thing and want to do the right thing for all kids, and for their kids. Don’t they deserve the absolute best? People should be able to educate their children with their own dollars. Amen. Stay on board. Keep plugging.”
The two faith-community leaders spoke at a special July 29 meeting of the Oklahoma Education Choice Coalition, held at the Advance Center for Free Enterprise.
Bill Price, a former U.S. attorney who now serves on the Oklahoma Board of Education, honored Abner for his years of work as a leading state advocate for premarital abstinence, and his new role as an organizer of Faith Leaders for Education Excellence.
Price, chairman of the Education Choice Coalition, has advocated for public school excellence and increased educational options for several decades.
OCPA president Jonathan Small was unable to attend the meeting combined with an ice cream social, but in a prepared statement shared with this reporter, stressed the need not only for educational choice but also for a teacher pay hike for public school educators. “Our preK-12 education system currently has plenty of money — $8.7 billion in total revenues last year, the most in state history,” he said. “But in a bloated system that employs more non-teachers than teachers, that money’s simply not going to the right place: take-home pay for the many excellent teachers who have earned a raise.”
The July session was more abbreviated than customary for the monthly meetings, as the event included a couple dozen children who are participating school choice programs in Oklahoma. And those youngsters were waiting to visit the ice cream truck parked outside the entrance of the Advance Center for Free Enterprise, next door to the main headquarters of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), just south of the state Capitol on North Lincoln Boulevard.
When he kicked off the session, Price quipped he directed the speakers to keep their remarks focused because, “I don’t want to be the guy standing between children and ice cream.”
The date coincided with the birthday of the late Milton Friedman, one of the most honored economists of the Twentieth Century. At the height of his fame as a Nobel Prize winning economist, Friedman and his wife, Rose, developed the concept of educational choice, allowing parents to choose the school setting and instructional model best for their own children.
For decades, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, established in their honor, provided the intellectual and some of the financial wherewithal for the school choice movement in America. Activists and researchers supporting the cause held annual events, including casual ice cream socials like the one in Oklahoma City, to remember the couple’s seminal role in expanding viable options for children from challenged circumstances to access the best schools.
As part of this year’s celebrations, the national foundation transitioned to a new name – EdChoice.org. The organization sustains the focus of its legendary forebears, “to advance educational freedom and choice for all as a pathway to successful lives and a stronger society.”
To carry out the mission, the re-branded group will focus on three goals, leaders say: educating “diverse audiences about education choice and its benefits,” training “supporters and policymakers to advocate for high-quality choice programs,” and engaging “in activities that generate results for children and families.”
In Oklahoma City and other venues, organizers prepared masks bearing the visage of Dr. Friedman. The young people, their parents and choice supporters carried the Friedman masks, calling themselves – as part of his legacy – “the faces of school choice.”
NOTE: An award-winning journalist, McGuigan is also a certified school teacher in Oklahoma. He is the author of hundreds of articles and commentaries on education in particular, and state public policy in general. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University, where in 1980 he was named the Teaching Assistant of the Year – first in the College of Education, and then for the entire University.