COMMENTARY — The problem with Pugh

PHOTO from Blue Cereal Blog

OKLAHOMA CITY – In the November election, the race to succeed Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, in Senate District 41, pits a Democrat named Kevin McDonald against a Republican named Adam Pugh. 
McDonald is an Edmond public school teacher. Pugh is a retired military man. The district is overwhelmingly Republican, but the contest has some intriguing features. 
Both men were put on the “apple” list developed by OPE (Oklahomans for Public Education). OPE is best known for a PAC that has been largely unsuccessful in defeating advocates of school choice, but which did create quite a stir this year, notching a couple of political scalps during the recent primary season.
In addition to asserting that public education is underfunded, OPE opposes parental choice in education, specifically including Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). (Note: All elements of government-financed education – K-12 common schools, CareerTech and Higher Education – combined garner about 51 percent of all state government spending. Roughly one-third of all state government spending goes to finance K-12 schools.)
While McDonald was unopposed for his party’s nomination, Pugh battled conservative stalwart Paul Blair for the Republican nod. In the GOP primary, Pugh nearly won the GOP nod outright in a three-candidate field.
The runoff developed into one of the most watched races of the year. Pugh emerged victorious, in a race with lots of theatrics but in which school choice was not an obvious dividing point.
Rev. Blair, of course, was and remains a conservative stalwart — and a passionate advocate for school choice, to boot. Pugh’s ‘apple’ from the anti-choice group OPE raised eyebrows, even among some who were critical of Blair on other issues. But school choice proponents took solace in the fact that Pugh, in most respects resembling a conservative Republican, was rated as pro-choice in education by both the State Chamber of Oklahoma and the American Federation for Children.
It now appears that someone was confused, or someone was misled, or both.
The “Blue Cereal” blog on September 16 included a useful review of the educational policy views of both McDonald and Pugh. McDonald stressed his opposition to proposals like ESAs, but actually had some good words to offer for the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships, which benefit children with special needs. 
The jolt came in Pugh’s responses to the the blog writer’s questions. He said explicitly, “I don’t support the current efforts for ESAs or vouchers.”
CapitolBeatOK cast a wide net over the past couple of weeks. Sources insisting on anonymity have confirmed that that Pugh told both AFC and to the State Chamber of Oklahoma that he strongly supported affording parents the ability to choose schools for their children. And, AFC specifically included Pugh in a post-runoff listing of newly-nominated ESA supporters in Oklahoma.
To be clear, Pugh’s recent comment on the Blue Cereal blog obviously contradicts the view held among the vast majority of Edmond Republicans at the time of the primary and the runoff elections. Pugh’s professed support for school choice was a factor for some groups and individuals who sat out of the race between him and Blair.  
It’s that simple, and that clear. 
There are ironies in Pugh’s apparent opposition to school choice, quite aside from the question of whether or not he misled AFC, the state Chamber and other supporters of more robust parental options for their school-aged children.
While Sen. Jolley had his share of conservative critics during his 12-year tenure, he emerged as a legislative champion for choice in education, working closely with state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, to advance (determinedly but not always successfully) incremental steps for increased educational options. 
Further, choice has been a winning issue for Republicans – not only in places like Edmond but also in “bluer” parts of the state like the heart of Oklahoma City and north Tulsa.
A November 2015 Sooner Survey (conducted by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass and Associates) found 70  percent support for school choice among all Oklahoma voters. That broke down to 79 percent among Republicans and a robust 60 percent among Democrats. An outright majority (54 percent) of Oklahomans backed ESAs, the survey found. 
But that’s not all. The state Supreme Court, not always sympathetic to conservative public policy objectives, this summer gave unanimous constitutional approval to the concept and the reality of parental choice in education. 
The problem with Adam Pugh is that on one of the rare unifying issues in contemporary politics, he is on the wrong side of history.
(NOTE: A certified teacher, McGuigan is an educator and journalist. Since 2002, he has taught in both public and private schools.)