Oklahoma Republicans form urban-rural coalition for choice, flexibility
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Published: 27-Apr-2011

Among Republicans in the Oklahoma state Legislature, most arguments in favor of school choice have come from the urban side. In the 2011 session, in the debate favoring Senate Bill 969, strong advocacy for creating opportunity scholarships came from rural and small town members of the Grand Old Party’s ranks, especially in the House of Representatives.

In final debate on the legislation, which cleared the House yesterday, Republican Rep. Harold Wright of Weatherford pressed the case for S.B. 969. When he rose to support the measure, he told colleagues, “Members, this bill relates to helping kids, particularly those in bad situations. Sometimes we talk a lot about different things out here on the floor. We talk about what we’re going to do for schools, and we hear a lot. 

“I’ll tell you, I’m amazed as a state representative at the number of things we hear from superintendents and administrators up here, and very little from our constituents, in a lot of cases. We forget sometimes that we’re trying to help kids in our school system. I think that’s the bottom line on this particular bill.”

Wright argued in favor of a “public option” mechanism state Rep. Lee Denney of Cushing, House co-sponsor of S.B. 969, had devised to improve offerings in rural public schools where private educational options are not typically available. In his comments yesterday, Wright said:  

“Initially, coming out of the Senate this bill did not include the public option. This is a public option for public schools. In Weatherford, in schools [with] over 4,200 [student] attendance, I think this is good for public schools. It gives them to opportunity in their own community to form a separate foundation or maybe even include it in the current foundation they already have, then that way local people can take money and contribute to that foundation, and in turn, that money will go to help that school in some areas that they may have some needs. So for the public element in particular, I am in favor of this bill. I am in favor of it because, again, the bottom line is about helping kids.

“I want to point out something. I’m in business, we’re always looking for ways to get tax credits or tax deductions, and the bottom line on this bill is that we’ll be taking some tax deductions or credits that companies may have even taken out of our state. Bring that money into our state, and they’ve got to give 50 percent. Now they’re only going to get a credit for 50 percent of what they give, so for a $500 credit you’re getting a thousand dollars going into the private school program or into the public school program. So I would encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity and vote yes for this bill.”

Another small city Republican pushing support for the bill was state Rep. Charles Ortega of Altus. In yesterday’s debate time, he reflected, “I very rarely rise, but I do so today because I firmly feel that this bill is a good bill. We can demonize just about everything that crosses our desk and look for all the bad in it, but every once in a while you have to take a good hard look at what’s come across and see who it’s going to benefit, how it’s going to benefit them, and to what extent. 

“In rural schools -- and I have a lot of schools in my district, that can’t afford to do some of the things that some of the other schools can -- this bill will allow them to have the opportunity to apply for some of this grant money and exercise some innovative education opportunities. I think when you take a look at it and realize that what we’re doing right now with this particular bill is that we’re opening that door of opportunity for the smaller schools. The question has been asked ‘how come we’re not allocating more of the benefit to the rural schools?’ 

“I think that with all the stuff we read, see, search and research here, we see that the bigger problem we’re experiencing right now is in the inner city schools. So why not have that opportunity for the inner city schools to be able to capitalize on contributed dollars? Not funds that are removed out of the school funding formula, but these are contributed dollars that I as a businessman or individual want to give. 

“Like Representative Wright said, a 50 percent deduction is all you get on it. So I think that -- to not belabor this bill and try to take time to explain it … -- by voting for this you will be giving the opportunity for smaller schools to participate in something that I believe will further the education of our children. It’s very important. … I ask for your consideration on this bill. Think about it long and hard. It’s not about allowing people and schools to cherry-pick. … It’s about giving the parent the opportunity to select where they want their kids to go to school. It’s about educating the children, and I believe that we ought to give the parents that opportunity.”

Ortega said he would “yield” the remainder of his time to state Rep. Jason Nelson, who wrote historic legislation that led, last year, to creation of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for special needs children. 

Nelson pointed some of his comments at criticisms of the opportunity scholarships from representatives saying they supported local control and considered S.B. 969 a mandate or add-on without accompanying resources. 

Nelson commented, “It’s interesting the arguments we hear out here all the time: ‘local control’ and ‘it’s for the children,’ but then when you roll a bill out that addresses those issues, people don’t like them all of a sudden. We’ve seen that several times this year. This bill, number one, is focused on the children. It’s focused on the children in the sense that it gives them options. I would think that that would only serve to benefit children, not harm them. If the children are going to be hurt by more options, then somebody is going to have a high burden to explain that to the public. 

“This is the ultimate local control. … Can you get any more local than the parents choosing what’s best for their children? If you can get more local than that by some means of going through a school board or mandating that every child go to this school based on their zip code, then again I accidently got in my rocket ship and came to the wrong planet this morning, because it is simply local control happens in the home. This bill recognizes that. 

“The opposition arguments you hear about this, and it’s veiled, it’s about kids leaving here and going there, and all that. What that tells you is that ‘it’s all about the money. That’s what this is all about. It’s not about the children. It’s about the money.’ 

“And they’ll say this argument, which I never have understood: ‘this won’t help poor people’, as if it’s easier for a poor person to pay 100 percent of tuition than it is a portion of the private tuition. I don’t understand that argument either. I mean, if somebody gives me a discount, I’ll take it because it’s cheaper than paying 100 percent of the price, and it will be no different with these families.”

Opponents of choice, Nelson said, maintain concerning school choice programs: “‘Well, you’re just going to siphon off all of the good kids.’ The problem is that the good kids are happy where they are. We learned that last year with the bill I ran last year. Parents, without exception, wanted their kids in a public school.”

The difference between such children and the beneficiaries of S.B. 969, in Nelson’s view, is, “We’re talking about kids who are in crisis here. We’re not talking about your honor students. And there was one who used this argument too about athlete recruitment. Give me a break. They can already go to these schools. I mean there’s nothing stopping rich people from doing this now. What this does is help poor people exercise local control. Control by the parents about what’s best for their children. 

“One of the things I am realizing more and more everyday is that if we make a mistake out here it’s that we ask public schools to do the absolute impossible. What we ask them to do and expect them to do cannot be done. It just can’t. I don’t care what you do, what reform, or what amount of money. It can’t be done. It’s a fool’s errand. We’re going to have to do what we do in a lot of other areas of government, whether it’s foster care or whatever. We need to start partnering with charter schools and private schools, recognizing that the demographic today is completely different than when the school buildings were built for the children that attend school today.

“So, we’re going to have to quit doing the same thing with the modern demographic. You can’t shoehorn that foot into that shoe and get anywhere with it. It won’t work. What this does is basically recognize the foolishness of continuing to ask schools to take every kid from that zip code, put them in a class, teach them, and it will all turn out just like it did 40-50 years ago. 

“This recognizes that we’re going to have to partner with charter schools. We’re going to have to partner with private schools. We’re going to have to help rural schools to be more innovative, to use digital or virtual technology and to get hard to staff classroom instructors into a classroom, through a TV if you can’t hire the person.

“I went over … last August at the beginning of the school year, when all of the school districts were out trying to figure out how to get waivers so that teachers that weren’t trained in a particular area could teach that subject. That’s not what’s best for the kids. What’s best for the kids is giving them more options. That’s digital -- not a waiver for the teacher to teach something they’re not familiar with. 

“What we’re looking at is what’s best for the children. What provides them with options, flexibility. This really tries to meet several needs. It helps rural schools; it helps public schools; it helps children get to private schools. I can’t see any justification not to support this. 

“We talk about schools as if they have nerve endings, and that they suffer. They don’t; children do. Let’s stop asking public schools to do the impossible, without partnering and providing the tools necessary to help our children succeed. And if the children succeed, by definition the schools succeed. If you want schools to succeed, figure out a way to help children succeed, and that is by giving them these options.”

S.B. 969 passed the House 64-33 on Tuesday, and now goes to the Senate. Principal sponsor Dan Newberry of Tulsa/Sand Springs has said the rural-oriented changes in his program are “good amendments.” The bill appears to have strong prospects for final passage, and the journey to Governor Mary Fallin’s desk. 

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