Education

Diverse education picks clear partisan, ideological hurdles

May 14, 2019

Ray Carter

Four more of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s nominees for the State Board of Education advanced from the Senate Education Committee during a Tuesday morning meeting.

Of the six people Stitt has nominated for the board, Democrats have opposed four. Notably, Democrats have focused most of their fire on individuals who would bring the most diversity to the board, opposing three female nominees, two of them racial minorities, and opposing only one of three white male nominees. And after grilling two female nominees during Tuesday’s meeting, Democrats supported confirmation of two white males to serve on the board, allowing those individuals to advance from committee without answering any questions and without any substantive debate. Most of the female nominees opposed by Democrats have more extensive backgrounds in education than do the male nominees Democrats supported.

At the same time, three Republican senators joined Democrats in opposing one female nominee, despite those senators having voted in the same meeting in support of another nominee who espoused virtually identical views.

The two nominees facing the most questions from lawmakers were Estela Hernandez and Jennifer Monies, both of Oklahoma City. Hernandez is a small-business owner and mother of three who has served as a school board member. Monies is a mother of two who has run an education nonprofit, served on the community advisory board of her neighborhood elementary school, and currently serves on the board of her son’s school.

Under state law, if a local district refuses to sponsor a charter school, charter supporters may appeal to the State Board of Education to serve as a sponsor. Both women were asked if they would vote in favor of future charter appeals.

Hernandez said state board sponsorship of a charter school should be handled on a “case by case basis,” and the issue should be decided “on its merits.”

“Someone at the state level—state board, State Department of Education—believes that the local school board made the wrong decision, you think it’s their job to go in and undo that decision?” asked Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso.

“It is the role of the State Department of Education to listen to any appeal that is brought before them because that is the role of the department, is to listen,” Hernandez said. “And to then look at those items presented to them, to look at both sides, and then decide.”

Monies noted there have been only three appeals in the last four years, but said she would evaluate any appeal “on the merits” set out by lawmakers in state statutes.

“There’s a very long list, a checklist, that schools have to meet, including showing significant community support,” Monies said. “So if they don’t meet all of those checks, I absolutely have no problem—I have no problem—voting no.”

Monies defended charter schools against critics who suggest they do not serve all students.

“A charter school, as far as not having to take all kids, they cannot have a selection process, by law,” Monies said. “They have to have a lottery so they don’t get to cherry-pick kids.”

Monies said she supports efforts to provide equitable funding throughout the public school system. Public charter schools currently receive no property tax funding and, as a result, may receive hundreds or thousands less per student than do traditional public schools.

“I believe that charter school students are public school students and that they should be able to have equity when it comes to funding,” Monies said. “I don’t think that charter-school students are any less than traditional public-school students. But I also don’t think it should be at the expense of traditional public schools, so I think any additional ad valorem that would go to charter schools would have to be new money in the system.”

Both Hernandez and Monies voiced support for school-choice programs that allow parents to use state funds to place a child in a private school.

“Every one of you in this room that’s a parent and that have more than one child understands that each one has a different learning style,” Hernandez said. “Each one is very, very different with very different needs. And so it’s important for us to be able to—those individuals from the State Department of Education—to acknowledge that.”

Through the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, Hernandez noted the state provides scholarships that allow some students with special needs to attend private schools with state funds, and voiced support for that effort.

“We know that within our public education system, we want to meet the need of every single student,” Hernandez said. “But when our local neighborhood school is unable to do so because of special needs, this scholarship program allowed that student to be able to apply for the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship and be able to use those dollars in a private setting. So currently, in our state we do have a system where those dollars follow the child, where the parent and the student find the best fit for their education.”

Monies also praised the special-needs scholarship law, and said other children would benefit from similar opportunities.

“There are other students, especially students in poverty who do not have access to private school,” Monies said. “I don’t think private school should be locked to only kids who are rich and can afford it.”

She said that “in very narrow, limited scope,” she believed “students who are in poverty should also be able to attend a private school if that’s what their parent chooses,” but noted that is a policy decision lawmakers will decide.

“Ultimately, those decisions are made here at the Legislature,” Monies said. “And so the state board will not be able to put in place a new voucher system.”

In response to a question on consolidation, Hernandez said the decision to close school sites is best handled by local officials, noting consolidation efforts now underway in the Oklahoma City district, and said state officials should focus on reducing unnecessary administrative duplication.

“I can’t tell a district in northeast Oklahoma or southeast Oklahoma what’s in their best interests,” Hernandez said. “Only that community knows what’s best. And so, for me, if there is a conversation on consolidation, I think it’s important that the conversation go to administrative roles. How can we best utilize the dollars to be able to have the best outcome for our students?”

Both women said it was important for the State Board of Education to have access to diverse viewpoints.

“Diversity on our board is critical to better serve our students, not only diversity in gender, political views, but also racial,” Hernandez said. “As a leader in the Hispanic community, it would give me no greater honor to have this opportunity to serve. We need a board member that understands the challenges that this community is faced with and how to ensure that they succeed in our public education system. I am a product of public education and I want to continue to be an example to our students who are struggling to assimilate and learn in a new country. For you see, 36 years ago, I was one of those kids.”

“I have a heart for ensuring that every Oklahoma student has a quality education and every position that I hold is rooted in a desire to make Oklahoma a top 10 state in education,” Monies said. “But as a former journalist, I know that there are two sides to every story, and I believe that a diverse set of opinions make for a better decision-making process. I will keep an open mind on these issues as long as the quality outcomes for students remain the focus.”

Hernandez’s nomination advanced from committee on a 13-3 vote with only Democrats in opposition. Monies’ nomination passed on a 10-6 vote with three Republicans siding with Democrats in opposition.

In contrast, two other Stitt nominees for the State Board of Education—Kurt Bollenbach, an oil and gas operator and attorney from northwest Oklahoma, and Brian Bobek, an official with BP Lubricants—each advanced on 15-0 votes after little or no public scrutiny.

The Oklahoma Education Association, which has opposed Stitt’s Board of Education nominees, derided the whole slate on Twitter. After Monies, who lives in the heart of Oklahoma City, said she had an urban-centric perspective as a result, OEA tweeted, “Unfortunately, that can be said about nearly everyone @GovStitt has nominated to the SBE.”

The OEA responded to Hernandez advancing from committee by tweeting, “Rubber stamp, much?”

Fred Morgan, president and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, where Monies previously worked on education policy, decried “the union scare tactics involved in Jennifer’s nomination process. The Oklahoma Education Association has spent a lot of time and effort attacking Jennifer. It’s disheartening that the OEA is more focused on bashing a qualified, passionate nominee than they are on achieving positive education outcomes for our children.”

Morgan called Monies “a tireless advocate for education."

“Now, more than ever, we need new people with new ideas to push back against the failing status quo in education,” Morgan said.

Stitt praised the committee’s action, saying each board nominee “is a qualified leader and passionate about ensuring Oklahoma’s children all have access to a Top Ten education system.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said Hernandez and Monies “are both successful and capable women who are more than qualified to serve on the State Board of Education.” He said the two women “will bring a new perspective, energy, and high level of expectations for our entire educational system. I know they both will work to focus Oklahoma education policy on students where it belongs.”

The four State Board of Education Committee nominees will next receive a vote from the full Senate. Two other nominees, Carlisha Williams Bradley and William Flanagan, have already been approved by the full Senate over Democratic opposition.

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