| June 30, 2010

How School Choice Came to Oklahoma

For many years I have reported in newspapers, in cyberspace, and in the broadcast arena. Due to my own interest and leavened by experiences as an inner-city educator, I have written hundreds of stories on education. A high percentage of those have been focused on school choice.

While choice was once a sidebar or "inside page" story, it is now defining American educational reform. Most reformers are politically conservative-but not all. Most opponents are liberal-but not all. And 2010 will be remembered as the year that education choice more dramatic and substantive than charter schools became part of the fabric of Oklahoma law, with conservatives and liberals on both sides of the debate.

State Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City joined last winter with state Sen. Patrick Anderson of Enid to fashion legislation (first advocated years ago by former state Sen. Scott Pruitt) designed to allow state funding for special-needs children to follow those children to whatever school is best for them.

Those two Republicans were joined in support by a small but important group of Democrats, led by black state Reps. Anastasia Pittman of Oklahoma City and Jabar Shumate of Tulsa.

I've previously reported how House Bill 3393 gathered steam, picking up momentum after Gov. Brad Henry and his wife Kim, responding to a request from Speaker-designate Kris Steele, allowed the proposal to bear the name of the daughter the Henrys lost to a rare illness 20 years ago.

As the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act worked its way through the Legislature, massive lobbying from entrenched interests tried to stop the idea. But timely calls to wavering Republicans from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stiffened the spines of key legislators-and the rest is history.

How We Learned About Choice

Milton Friedman, the late Nobel Prize laureate in economics, made the case for a modern version of school choice in America, providing evidence again and again that a market could work in education just as it does in the rest of American life. Friedman and his wife, Rose, believed in the power of ideas.

Here at home, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) came along in 1993. Beyond presentation of fundamental economic truths and constant scrutiny of government spending and taxation patterns, school choice has been one of the most frequent ideas presented in OCPA publications and public forums.

OCPA hosted speakers like Marvin Olasky, John Walton (of the Wal-Mart family), black conservative Star Parker, and Colorado Gov. Bill Owens to detail not only the theory but also the practice of school choice. When I was a commentator at The Oklahoman, I often focused on such speakers and on breaking news about successful choice programs.

In the late 1990s, public charter schools were authorized in Oklahoma. That cracked open the door to more responsive use of public dollars for the public purpose of educating children. Even the Oklahoma City Public School Foundation advocated limited forms of school choice in its 2000-01 advocacy of funding reforms.

Who Led Us to This Choice

In recent years, the most vital advance was probably the formation of a school choice coalition under the leadership of Oklahoma City attorney Bill Price, working closely with Leslie Hiner of the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice (formerly the Friedman Foundation). Coalition participants meet regularly, usually at a working lunch at OCPA, to share information and propose action. In February, school-choice advocate Patrick Byrne, the CEO of, came to Oklahoma for a press conference, a speech to a joint meeting of Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis clubs in Oklahoma City (Price introduced him), and a meeting with key civic leaders in Tulsa.

Price was among the Oklahomans who traveled to Philadelphia in November 2009 to explore expansive examples of school choice. They visited Spruce Hill Christian School, talked with legislators like black Democrat state Sen. Anthony Williams, and participated in long exchanges with people who have made inner-city education reform a reality. Oklahomans who made the trip included state Reps. Lee Denney (R-Cushing) and Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) and state Sens. Brian Bingman (R-Sapulpa), John Ford (R-Bartlesville), Dan Newberry (R-Tulsa), and Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa). Also on the trip were former state Rep. Susan Winchester, Ginger Tinney of Professional Oklahoma Educators, Michael Carnuccio (several months before he became OCPA president), Dr. David Hand (dean of the Oral Roberts University College of Education), Tom Daxon, and Matt Robison of the State Chamber (who later fashioned a timely Chamber endorsement of House Bill 3393). From that trip came the nexus of the school choice push in the 2010 legislative session.

There's the recent "back story," but there's more.

Over the past decade, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) emerged as a major national force for education reform. And that group had impacted the thinking of black leaders here in Oklahoma, including state Rep. Jabar Shumate of Tulsa.

In a series of lengthy essays in Perspective spread over several years, I detailed the bluntness and candor of leaders like north Tulsa pastor Donald O'Neil Tyler. He began to speak out several years back, with words of truth to power: "I have kids in my church that graduate and can't read. And you tell me this system is working?"

Tyler got attention when he bluntly declared that if Oklahoma ever created full-scale choice, allowing funding to flow to willing providers like his church, he would take 60 to 100 kids from his part of town "who are not now in school at all"-and would stand accountable for the results.

Then there's Deborah Brown of Tulsa, one of the dozen people I most admire in Oklahoma today. This one-woman powerhouse has drawn to herself a coterie of world-class educators working at the edge of a ghetto. She graduates college-bound youngsters from a system that includes both a private school and a charter system. Deborah says she could double her numbers if full-scale choice came to Oklahoma.

Ms. Brown, my kindred soul, is admittedly a long-standing critic of public school failures. So, what about Betty Mason, the retired Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent? She's now running St. John Christian Academy in northeast Oklahoma City. Betty has promised that if the Legislature allows money to follow children in all areas of education, "I know we could make that work, and make it real for our children." Already educating 110 students, she guarantees her system could handle another 90 children if the money were forthcoming.

Democratic state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton of Oklahoma City was a more subdued advocate of school choice, joining Pittman and Shumate in backing Nelson's historic push for Lindsey's Law. In 2008, she told colleagues underprivileged children live lives that most legislators can't even imagine. Choice gives them real hope in the real world. Shumate, in that same debate, said school choice is the best anti-poverty program he's ever seen.

As advocates revel in the victory achieved this year, they must remember those whose words and deeds in past years laid the groundwork for reform.

When the Choice Debate Changed

In the 2008 legislative session, then-Sen. James Williamson of Tulsa, a Republican, pushed the "New Hope" proposal to create a tax-credit-financed scholarship. After a lengthy and emotional debate, the dam broke to favor choice-seven Democrats joined every Republican as the measure sailed through the upper chamber.

Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson of south Oklahoma City, a former educator, deliberatively took colleagues through the pluses and minuses of the bill, doing the math and making the case about as dispassionately as could be imagined. Williamson and Wilcoxson, both Republicans, planted seeds two years ago that grew into the durable sapling of choice this year.

Judy Eason-McIntyre, who represents north Tulsa, could not have been clearer in her support for the New Hope bill. And perhaps the toughest assessment of Democrats by a Democrat that day came from Tom Adelson, another Tulsan. He told colleagues who were assailing Williamson's bill that the "lofty and empty rhetoric on my [Democratic] side" had embarrassed him. He voted for Williamson's bill.

Several Democrats who stood for choice that day are still in the upper chamber, but each broke against the Nelson-Pittman-Anderson bill this year. In the long run they still contributed to reform. As for Eason-McIntyre and Adelson, their opposition to this year's measure can't remove the drama and singular clarity of their 2008 reflections.

Focusing on Children, Not Politics

Both hope and admonition come in this first draft of history. Reformers always assumed, with pretty good reasons, that the first school-choice measure to make it through all the hurdles in Oklahoma would be a modest scholarship program centered most likely among "at-risk" children in our poorest school districts. But in a tough fiscal environment that led to trimming the sails of many tax credits, the first step beyond charter schools wound up being a true parental choice program, funded with taxes and aimed at a vulnerable population.

Lindsey's Law passed thanks to a strong-enough Republican majority, a small cluster of pro-reform Democrats, and support from a governor who no one dared believe would favor such an idea before he was invited into the discussion.

Years ago, I chose to chronicle the story of choice as it unfolds in Oklahoma. I do not dictate strategies or tactics. Still, I can't help reporting this: choice came to Oklahoma because supporters kept themselves focused on children, not politics. It came because advocates never stopped talking to opponents and because they reached out to diverse people on the basis of shared values.

Happy birthday, Milton Friedman (would have turned 98 years old on July 31). Thank you for your idea that we should be free to choose.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of

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