ANALYSIS Something old and something new: In the perfect storm, Nelson and school choice supporters not blue

OKLAHOMA CITY – For those (like me) who obsess over the advancement of varied school choice programs, the November election had some things old, including massive union spending against pro-choice candidates, and in favor of those defending the status quo. But the election also brought some things relatively new, notably including large independent expenditures on both sides of choice and other education policy issues.

Nationally, teachers’ unions spent more than $100 million, Allysia Finley of The Wall Street Journal reported, in efforts to elect allies and defeat supporters of school choice.

Union attacks on school choice: Epic Fails

The failures were often epic, and a source of comfort to Republicans.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a supporter of choice who has also increased spending on public schools, was reelected, as was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, perhaps the top target of unionists and their allies. In Florida, months after his political obituaries were written, Gov. Rick Scott won comfortably over an anti-choice candidate (Charlie Crist, who once upon a time supported parental choice).

Perhaps most dramatically, businessman Bruce Rauner unseated incumbent Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Watch closely to see how or if an alliance develops between Rauner and Chicago Mayor (and Baracj Obama pal) Rahm Emanuel, who has had his share of jousts with teachers unions.

In New York, charter school advocates and supporters of more aggressive brands of school choice played a role in the election of three conservative Republicans – just enough to shift the Empire State’s Senate from Democratic to GOP control. 

In Alabama, all 13 legislative candidates supported by Americans for Children, the nation’s most aggressive action group for school choice were elected.

In California, the establishment won – albeit narrowly, and in an election where both of the candidates still standing were Democrats. The loser in that race, Marshall Tuck, was characterized by the Wall Street Journal as “an articulate, congenial and unassuming Democrat who ripped open the crack in the party over school reform.”

California’s unusual runoff structure yielded members of the same party in the finale. While Tuck drew authentic bipartisan support, he had the backing of many fellow Democrats. He won “in most low- and middle-income communities in the state, including San Bernardino, Riverside and Fresno counties, and led in polls among minority groups.”

Jason Riley augmented Finley’s reporting with commentary for the Journal Online. In all, the voters’ messages were not confusing.

Still, Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT, AFL-CIO), tried to gloss over the nationwide failure of anti-reform/anti-choice campaigns. She asserted the nationwide defeats were merely a subset of public anger over President Barack Obama’s policies.

She said, “In the few places where you had issues like education and you have a good candidate who could get through the torrent of negative ads, we were able to win.”

Jason Nelson vs. Collin Walke

Wait a minute, as we bring this discussion home to Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma City, House District 87 had two superb candidates, one from each party. An effective incumbent, the all-but-sainted Republican Rep. Jason Nelson, sought a fourth term at the Capitol.

Opposing Nelson was Collin Walke, an appealing and likeable liberal Democrat whose underlying philosophy fits the demographic emerging in central Oklahoma City.

Except for one thing. Even in its liberal precincts, Oklahoma City is increasingly supportive of school choice – ranging all the way from public charter schools to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships Rep. Nelson created, and on to full scale programs envisioned to have the Sooner State join Arizona in creation of Education Savings Accounts.

Early on, Walke tied himself to the core of the public school establishment, including the Oklahoma Education Association, in opposition to choice.

In this he stood opposite a movement with momentum, a coalition that includes Democrats like Sen. Jabar Shumate, newly elected Sen. Anastasia Pittman and George Young, and her replacement in the House.

The OEA newsletter for October-November 2014 edition claimed Rep. Nelson “works tirelessly to divert money from public education to private schools” – and that his parent trigger law was “divisive” because it would allow parents to petition to take over a failing public school and convert it to a charter school site.

Long before the election, on its website, the OEA characterized Nelson as the state’s “worst public education legislator.” They made his defeat their top priority of 2014, calling that race “November’s most important election.” 

In the last available financial reports for Nelson’s campaign (late October) he had raised over $64,000 and carried over $84,286 from prior campaigns. His donations were a mix of individual and institutional contributors, with a few thousand more from political action committees than from individuals, this year. He raised a lot of money, and spent it well.

Walke, on the other hand, had shortly before the election raised $137,746 in new money, blending it with $53,975 from earlier efforts.

I can’t make definitive conclusions about spending in the race until all the post-election reports are filed, but in terms of dollars and cents raised and spent by the candidates themselves, it was expensive. And, although each hopeful deployed over $100,000, Walke may have had an advantage in total resources.

The role of Independent Expenditures in Oklahoma’s state House District 87

The OEA was not the only high-powered group offended by Rep. Nelson’s common sense and Oklahoma-based views on education policy.

It is hard to figure out the full extent of independent expenditures in the race for House District 87, but they were apparently significant. Independent spending can be financed through political action committees when an explicit endorsement is made, 501 c 4s, or other organizations able to protect the anonymity of funding sources.

In August, September and through late October, the pro-Common Core “Oklahoman’s for a Prosperous Future” spent more than $78,000 opposing Republicans in the Legislature. It’s not yet clear how much of that went into the effort to defeat Nelson, but some of it did.

Nolan Clay reported, for the The Oklahoman, that Oklahoma Family Focus, a group financed primarily by the state’s Trial Lawyers, poured $127,130 into online advertising and mailers supporting Democrats in October alone, and Walke’s campaign got the benefit of some of that cash. The Family Focus bunch is also a determined advocate of Common Core. Although the final value of that group’s push in H.D. 87 is not clear, it financed three full-color mailers opposing Nelson and supporting Walke in the final weeks.

Gauging impact, and plausible messaging

Signs of how mysterious the impact of so-called “dark money” (or “First Amendment money,” depending on your perspective) can be is that groups and individuals claiming to be conservative were among those backing Democrats against Republicans like Nelson. This, even though Nelson’s opposition to Common Core was matched by that of the Democratic nominee for governor, Joe Dorman.

Dorman linked Mary Fallin to controversial Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, an assertion with at least some plausibility. However, such messaging failed when Nelson’s critics called him part of “the Janet Barresi Show.”

After all, it was Nelson who sponsored Common Core repeal (along with state Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, another conservative who won after drawing the wrath of Big Business elements in love with the top-down standards).

Nelson benefited from underlying pro-school-choice sentiment in Oklahoma City, and spending across the state from Oklahomans for Children (whose independent expenditures backing school choice I’ve detailed previously).

Nelson asserted four-square conservatism, including his stands in favor of capital punishment (Walke was a former director of the state’s leading anti-death penalty group) opposition to abortion on demand and, to be sure, school choice.

The latter issue helped offset any confusion about his merits in the minds of voters.

Nelson garnered 52.1 percent (4,406 votes, or 53.1 percent). Walke made a good showing for a first-time candidate (3,887 supporters, or 46.9 percent), but was on the wrong side of the school choice debate.

After all the shouting and spending was over, Nelson’s victory margin was nearly identical to the average he has garnered across four general elections – 52.2 percent.

“The attack mailers accused me of diverting money from public schools, yet they offered no example of how we supposedly advocated that. I campaigned openly in favor the Lindsay Nicole Henry Act and the other school choice measures I have backed,” Nelson told me.

“Throughout the campaign, I continued to see the steady shift toward support for school choice. I was gratified to encounter [in door-knocking walks] those who were otherwise liberal who believe it is an important policy goal to continue advancing for school choice. This was gratifying to see after all of our work on this.”

Nelson wrote on his blog, “Many tried to make this race a referendum on education and the many reforms I have been proud to support in recent years, like the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program for children with special needs. I think they were right.” 

“This victory proves that putting people over partisan politics works. It’s not about protecting an elite class or the education establishment — it’s about doing the right thing for individual families, like that of Diane Brumley, who went above and beyond to tell her story of how the LNH scholarship changed her family’s life.” 

The historian and political scientist in me cautions that every election is the result of particular elements within any given district or state.

Nonetheless, Nelson’s victory falls easily within the broader context of a national surge in favor of- school choice — and against those heavy-handed efforts by unions to punish choice advocates.

Nelson says school choice will be several votes stronger in the 2015 legislative session than in the 2014 deliberations. 

What is particularly encouraging to me, in Nelson’s words, is that the net pickup includes “Democrats who will support school choice. In the end, it was encouraging to win when I’d been named the number 1 target of the Oklahoma Education Association. Pro-education choice candidates won consistently.”

In an editorial following Nelson’s victory, the state’s largest newspaper recommended that other Republicans take note. 

“Nelson supports school choice, charter schools and greater parental control. He authored legislation to create education savings accounts that allow parents to use state dollars for a child’s tutoring or private schools. That such an agenda can win in a truly competitive district shows school choice and parental empowerment are winning issues. Statewide, several pro-school choice candidates from both parties won legislative races.”

The Legislature’s top advocate of parental choice in education, and other brands of creativity in Oklahoma schooling, says this is “an idea whose time has come. The results in my race and in in all the other contests means the future is bright.”

McGuigan, a certified public school teacher, is the author of thousands of articles and commentaries on public, private and home schools. This analysis is adapted from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) blog “Inter Alia”, where it was first published.