National School Choice advocates cheer Oklahoma event

Teresa Oelke, a national organizer for School Choice Week 2012, said the Oklahoma City area event — sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, among others — was one of the best for the organization, in a year where she says the cause of parental choice in education is manifesting new strength. 

Oelke (prounded “Okie”) is based in Arkansas, where she is the AFP state chairman. In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, she praised Jolly and his AFP activists for organizing the Tuesday evening (January 24) event which drew more than 300 people to the Nigh University Center at Edmond’s University of Central Oklahoma.

Attendees heard from former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, award-winning commentator John Fund, Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, Jeff Reed of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and state Sen. Gary Stanislawski.  

Oelke said that a gathering was intended to assure “parents have the freedom to choose the best educational option for their children” which might not seem unusual.

However, this week has brought “almost 500 events going on across the country. From groups on the right of center, from groups in the middle, from groups on the left, demanding that kids should not be condemned by their zip code to failing school.”

She pointed to some of the diverse policy leaders appearing at the events across the nation, detailed in an earlier story from CapitolBeatOK. 

In a video interview with CapitolBeatOK, Oelke reflected, “It’s really an exciting coalition when you have Rahm Emanual and Juan Williams on one side, coupled with Dick Morris and John Fund on the other end. It’s a great coalition and it really means the issue is going to win.”

She asserts prospects for school choice are better than ever in 2012: “I’ll tell you what. The difference between 2010 when we set the slate for marquee events across the country, is that then it was hard to come up with venues or states that we felt could benefit from the positive message of reform for National School Choice Week.

“But this year, in 2011, it was difficult to choose the 15 marquee events going on around the country. That means the issue is gaining ground and we’re gaining momentum.”

In a pre-event reception Tuesday, Watts, the former U.S. Representative from Norman, said he considered school choice the most critical issue facing the country in the long run. While health care “could wipe us out in one year” if mishandled, poor educational performance could ruin the country over the course of time.

Organizers touted this week’s event as designed to “restore American exceptionalism.” They pointed to dire performance statistics, with college graduates facing the highest unemployment rates in history. Literature circulated at the event noted American 15-year-olds rank fifteenth out of 57 industrialized countries in math and literacy. 

Watts, noting he was a public school product, said he believed the system is much weaker than in the years he attended eastern Oklahoma’s Eufaula public schools, 1965-76. 

Fund said the unfolding story of American reform is “formed, established in meetings like this.” He expressed hope because he is confident that “even honest liberals have decided we cannot defend the educational status quo any longer.”

Fund continued that he agreed with the premise of organizers that educational opportunity should not be dependent on a child’s “zip code. If we don’t get this right, China and India are going to eat our lunch – and our breakfast and our dinner.”  He expressed hope the momentum school advocates now enjoy will bring improvement to American education because, he reflected, “competition makes things better.”

Superintendent Barresi, also speaking at the pre-event reception, pointed to recent momentum for choice in Oklahoma. She said the way to assure good options for parents in the future is to assure good teachers in every classroom, and strong leaders at every school.

Before and after a panel of the speakers highlighted the event, information on school choice was displayed by a variety of organizations providing choice options both in the public system and in private settings, including Connections Academy, Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, k12 Online School, and National Coalition for Public School Options (state chapter).

Stuart Jolly, AFP’s Oklahoma director, moderated the evening’s proceedings. 

Context for the gathering, and some of the national attention it gained in advance of the event, comes from the Sooner State’s recent history. 
Choice legislation was enacted both in 2010 — when then-Governor Brad Henry (a Democrat) supported and signed a bill benefitting special needs children — and in 2011, when Governor Mary Fallin (a Republican) supported and signed into law the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.