Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Two key leaders of the American Federation for Children (AFC), a leading school choice advocate, came to the Sooner State for an early December event. Mandy Drogin, AFC’s director of events, and Scott Jensen, the organization’s senior advisor, joined Oklahoma leaders to discuss the cause and solicit support from those who attended.
A reception and dinner atop the Devon Energy Tower, in the VAST banquet area on the top floor, drew a large crowd to enjoy a reception and dinner.
“A Bold Agenda for Oklahoma: Transforming Oklahoma’s Education System and Advancing the Economy” was the evening’s theme.
Dr. Valerie Thompson, president and CEO of the Urban League in Oklahoma City, delivered the opening prayer at the event because University of Oklahoma Vice President Jabar Shumate was unable to attend. Dr. Thompson read a note from former state Sen. Shumate, D-Tulsa, in which he encouraged those assembled to continue in their advocacy for school choice.
Robert J. “Bob” Ross led an after-dinner panel discussion with three passionate advocates of school choice. Ross is president, CEO and a board member for the Inasmuch Foundation. His educational involvement includes current membership on the Oklahoma state Board of Education, and board membership for the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, John W. Rex Elementary School, Tulsa Educare, Teach for America-Oklahoma City, and Westminster School. His panelists included Paul Campbell, Bob Sullivan and Dana Weber, all notable business leaders in the state.
Campbell runs Enviro Systems in Seminole. He is trustee at the Jason Moran Children’s Museum in that community, and the founder/chairman of Advance Rural Education (ARE). Campbell has led efforts to establish a charter school in the Varnum distsrict, flowing from legislative approval of measures permitting charters to operate beyond the state’s two large urban areas.
Sullivan owns Sullivan and Company LLC, an oil and gas exploration and production firm. He was a 2006 Republican candidate for governor, losing in the primary to then-U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Oklahoma City. Sullivan, an advisor on business and energy issues for former Gov. Frank Keating and Gov. Mary Fallin, is co-chairman of the Oklahoma Federation for Children.
Dana Weber is CEO and president of Webco Industries, based in Sand Springs. She serves on the board of directors for the University of Tulsa, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), the State Chamber, and the EFoundation.
Campbell said his motivation to encourage programs that advance school choice arose from his experiences growing up in the Allegheny Mountains of Kentucky, where options for children (many from coal-mining families) were limited. He benefited, he recalled, from a move to Indianapolis, Indiana, during his teen years. There he encountered “adults in my life who raised expectations.”
He supports traditional public schools, and supported a recent bond issue in his community. Campbell also has led the effort to establish a charter school which the local school board rebuffed in a recent vote. Campbell is advancing the idea to the next level, seeking approval of the state board of education under existing legal provisions.
Sullivan said he has benefited his entire life from the excellent education his family provided him through Catholic schools. He is a champion of broader options for those who do not have existing family resources. His unsuccessful run for governor in 2006 advanced school choice ideas.
Presently Sullivan works with Tulsa’s San Miguel School. The student population there consists of students from economically-challenged families who in most cases cannot afford tuition at regular Catholic schools in the area.
Weber described a personal experience (educational challenges for a daughter) that she says opened her eyes to the need for parental choices. In her comments during the panel discussion, she supported expansion of school choice and advocated policies to redirect public school resources from administrative systems into direct classroom instruction within public schools.
Materials distributed at the event demonstrated the diversity of successful and prominent Americans who have benefited from educational choice in education during their own lives.
The listing pointed to notable private school graduates – Justice Sonia Sotamayor (Blessed Sacrament School, New York), Sean “P Diddy” Combs (Mount St. Michael Academy, New York), Condoleezza Rice (St. Mary’s Academy, Englewood), Jennifer Lopez (Preston High School, The Bronx), Barack Obama (Punahou School, Hawaii), Vera Wang (The Chapin School, New York), Bill Gates (Lakeside School, Seattle), LeBron James (St. Vincent-St. Mary, Arkon, Ohio) and Kerry Washington (Spence School, New York).
Inside the distributed material was a listing of ten children (photographs but first names only) presently enrolled in school choice programs in the District of Columbia, Milwaukee, Louisiana, Indiana, Arizona, Georgia and Florida.
A year-end note from Betsy DeVos – immediate past chairman of the American Federation for Children – pointed out that the prominent individuals listed and pictured on the AFC report’s cover “all came from families who had a choice – some through a scholarship and others because their family income enabled them – to attend a school that best fit their needs.”
DeVos, whom President-Elect Donald Trump has named as his choice for U.S. Secretary of Education – noted the choices afforded the listed individuals, observing, “Contrast that with the millions of children today who are forced to attend schools that don’t meet their needs.” Despite challenges, she wrote, “In the 2016-17 school year, an estimated 430,000 children are enrolled in school choice programs nationwide, with well over one million children served since publicly funded school choice programs were first enacted. Today 50 programs operate in 25 states and Washington, D.C.”
At the reception before dinner, five current or former legislators received recognition as Champions of Choice – recognizing their support of public policies advancing parental options in education.
Each of the honorees are Republicans. Feted at a pre-dinner reception were state Senators David Holt of Oklahoma City and Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, along with former Representatives Tom Newell of Seminole, Lee Denney of Chickasha and Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City.
While Denney left the state House due to term limits, Nelson did not seek reelection, and Newell resigned his position to take a job in the private sector.
Denney advanced charter schools during her tenure at the Capitol, while Newell and Nelson were leading champions of expansive choice policies. Nelson wrote historic legislation, enacted during the administration of Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, creating the Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarship Program for children with special needs.
In the course of the evening, more than a dozen members of the Legislature, members of both parties, joined in the discussions about educational freedom and related issues.