Waiting for Supermen: Republicans Corey Holland, Earl Sears make the case for choice

When the advance of educational choice in Oklahoma is scrutinized in detail in some future book or scholarly treatise, decades of advocacy in newspaper commentaries and panels on reform will deserve a good share of attention. At the same time, final arguments laid out by Republicans  in the Oklahoma House of Representatives during closing debate over Senate Bill 969 may also deserve careful study. 

The consensus for transformational education reform that came to the Sooner State due to the November 2010 elections is reaching a high water mark in legislation that, if finally cleared by the Senate and signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin, will provide resources allowing children from failing schools to choose educational settings of their families’ choice.

In the prelude to yesterday’s House vote on S.B. 969 – which saw the measure sail to passage with 64 votes and only 33 against, state Rep. Corey Holland of Marlow was one of the half dozen members who rose to debate the issue. 

Holland said, “Members, we can demagogue things to death. It never ceases to astound me how we can demagogue things. We’ll use the same words, but we’re not necessarily talking about the same thing. I want to let you know something. I love my wife. I hope that shouldn’t be a surprise, especially for her. I love my wife. I love pizza. I love my wife and I love pizza. We’re restricted in the English language with the word love, so we have to use the word to talk about someone we care about in the human sense and use that same word to talk about a food that we like to eat. That’s a shame. 

“In Spanish, I would say ‘me gusta’ when I’m talking about the food. When I’m talking about my wife there’s a whole other special word: ‘te amo.’ In the English language we can’t do that. I have to say that I love my wife and I love pizza. I’m using the same word, but hopefully you understand that I don’t mean it in the same way. I don’t love pizza nearly as much as I love my wife. I can live without pizza. 

“Now you’re saying ‘what the heck are you talking about?’ I don’t care how often you say the word ‘voucher,’ it doesn’t mean that you’re using it in the proper context in this situation. A voucher, in the context of the people who don’t like vouchers: what they’re talking about is the tax dollars that is given to a school based upon the weighted average of a student, and I’m just going to say $7,000 and make up a number, because it is unique to the student, and that student leaves the school, and that $7,000 that the state sent to that school district goes with the student. That’s a voucher. 

“What we’re talking about here …, we’re talking about money that has been given, by an individual or a business, to address a need. We can argue over whether or not they’re going to get that or whether it’s going to come back to the states, but the reality is that those people who are giving that money, if they don’t give it to this group, they’re going to give it to United Way, Feed the Children, somewhere. 

“The State of Oklahoma is not going to get that money. That’s one of the reasons that they’re giving it. We act like ‘well gosh, if we don’t give them this option, then they’re going to turn around and give it all to the state.’ No they’re not. They’re going to give it to another organization, so let’s make that clear.

 “I don’t know how many of you saw the movie ‘Waiting for Superman.’ That movie was very impactful to me. Because this is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about every single day there are children trapped in some of these inner city schools that have nowhere to go. They have no other options. That’s what this bill is going to do. It’s going to give them an option to leave that school and potentially go somewhere else. 

“You want to talk about making a difference? We all know that if you can make a difference in a child’s life, think about exponentially moving forward what kind of impact that’s going to have on our state. If you haven’t seen ‘Waiting for Superman,’ and you vote no on this bill, I would challenge you over the weekend to watch that movie, and then tell me you still feel good about the vote. 

“Secondly, our rural schools have a great need. I have some schools in my district that would like to offer physics and calculus, but it’s not practical to go out and hire a teacher to teach four students. This bill will allow that school to apply for a grant and get money so that they can offer the same course level of classes that some of the other schools are getting in the big cities.

“Let me define success for you. This is how we’re going to know when this bill has been successful. Success is going to be determined by when we get protracted out in the future, and we have all this money sitting there that no one is applying for. Because of the competition that we’ve created, no one is going to need the money anymore. Then it will be a happy day when a Representative says ‘let’s repeal that. We don’t need it anymore.’ 

“But that day is not today. We have kids today that are asking for your help. I would say that it is in our best interest to provide them with that help. Please vote yes on this bill.”  

Another advocate for the legislation was state Rep. Earl Sears of Bartlesville. He reflected, “I’ve had these kinds of conversations before, debates here on the floor about public education. I think most of you know that my career was in public education. Once again, I want to start out by saying that in Oklahoma, I truly believe we have an excellent education system in place. I’m very proud of the one we have in Bartlesville. I know what it did for me. I know what it did for my own two children and I’m sure every member in here could give an example in regards to your own districts. 

“At the same time, we also have some outstanding teachers in this great state. We educate them; we train them, and I think that they do a phenomenal job. 

“But for whatever reason, members, there are two areas, and in one particular area there are 16 schools on the needs improvement list, and in the other area there are 18 schools on the needs improvement list. 

“There are a lot of factors. You can’t blame it all on teachers. You can’t blame it all on the system. You can blame it on a lot of factors, but the point of it is that there are people that are trapped in those particular areas.

“I ask you, and the majority of you in here have children, do you want your children going to a school like that? They’re trapped. Here we have an opportunity today to put something in place to help these particular parents to help these students. That’s this whole point here. 

“I assure you, every person in here has a choice. This representative right here has a choice for whatever church she wants to join. This representative right here had a choice about whatever career he wanted to go into. This representative right here has a choice about whatever store they want to shop at. But when it comes to public education, depending upon the zip codes, that’s where you’re at. That’s the school you have to attend.”

On the House floor in final debate, only Minority Floor Leader Scott Inman of Del City spoke against S.B. 969. However, three House Democrats issued a Tuesday press statement assailing the school reform measures Republicans have advanced this year. Countering that was a wave of praise from conservatives both inside and outside of government.   

S.B. 969, by Sen. Dan Newberry of Tulsa/Sand Springs and Rep. Lee Denny of Cushing, is now before the state Senate, where its prospects for passage and Governor Mary Fallin’s signature seem bright.