Ray Carter | February 9, 2023
Facing strong school choice support, union touts push poll
Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters both convincingly won statewide races last November while championing school choice programs that allow state funds to follow a child to any provider, including private schools.
At the same time state polls consistently show strong voter support for school choice programs, including Education Savings Accounts and vouchers.
But now the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, and allied organizations, are trying out a new message: Who are you going to believe, our outlier poll or your lying eyes?
The OEA, along with other organizations in the Oklahoma Education Coalition, has released a poll that claims Oklahomans overwhelmingly oppose school choice. The union and its allies say a poll of 600 likely voters, conducted by the Tarrance Group in late 2022 following Stitt and Walter’s victories, shows that 74 percent of Oklahomans oppose school vouchers even though 55 and 57 percent of voters cast their ballots for Stitt and Walters, respectively, in races where both men’s support for vouchers was a major issue.
But that poll is not only an outlier, the pollster who conducted the OEA survey has previously found nearly mirror-opposite results when working for other Oklahoma clients—twice, in fact.
And an official with one major polling organization, which was among the few to correctly predict the results of last fall’s gubernatorial race between Stitt and Democratic candidate Joy Hofmeister, said the OEA survey is clearly a “push” poll designed to produce results untethered from the reality of Oklahoma voter opinion.
“In an effort to protect the status quo that is failing Oklahoma students, the fight for school freedom is frequently wrought with fraudulent and misleading data, and even what is commonly referred to as push polling,” said Trevor Smith, chief research officer for WPA Intelligence. “On this occasion, by hiring a Republican polling firm, the OEA is attempting to legitimize a polling question that is nothing more than a push poll disguised as real polling. Their language is suggestive and includes negative bias in order to influence the respondent to their desired response.”
The OEA poll read a series of statements to respondents and asked them if they would be more or less likely to support allowing taxpayer dollars “to fund private school tuition.” Among the statements read was the claim that voucher programs “mean there is less money available to maintain and improve our public schools” and that families in rural areas “will be hurt by these voucher programs,” and the poll claimed vouchers “can only be used in schools in about one-third of the state.”
While the OEA poll suggested only about one-third of students would be able to attend a private school under a voucher program, a 2017 report from The Brookings Institution demonstrated otherwise. Brookings officials estimated that 61 percent of Oklahoma students live within five miles of a private school.
Smith noted questions included in the poll fail to accurately describe how voucher programs work or reflect their real-world impact. Existing school-voucher programs in Oklahoma and elsewhere have been in place even as funding for traditional public schools has also been increased.
“If they asked, ‘Do you favor taking money away from kids and giving that money to other kids,’ they would likely get the same result,” Smith noted. “This is not what the program does and they know that. This data is meant to influence—push—opinion. Their goal is to make school freedom look as bad as possible, damn the method to get there, and they asked a push question to do just that.”
Notably, the OEA and the Oklahoma Education Coalition released a similar Tarrance Group poll in March 2022 that proclaimed similarly high levels of voter opposition to school choice and voucher programs. Yet both Stitt and Walters went on to easily win election while campaigning in support of school choice, as did many state legislative candidates.
And the Tarrance Group has previously found strong support for school choice when conducting other polls in Oklahoma for clients other than a teachers’ union.
A January 2015 poll conducted by the Tarrance Group for then-Gov. Mary Fallin asked, “Do you favor or oppose educational choice, which is giving parents the right to use the tax dollars associated with the education of their children to send their children to the public or private school of their choice?”
In that Tarrance Group poll, 64 percent of Oklahoma voters supported school choice.
Similarly, a Tarrance Group survey of 600 Republican primary voters, conducted in June 2014 for the Oklahoma Federation for Children, showed that 64 percent of Oklahoma Republican primary voters supported creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that allow parents to use their child’s per-pupil allocation for a range of education services, including private school tuition.
Smith said the OEA and its allies are trying to use push polling to convince state lawmakers to ignore reality.
“While opening up opportunities for all students to attend schools that better meet their needs improves on the status quo for students and families, this change makes it harder for bureaucrats to continue failing our students without consequences,” Smith said. “That clearly scares the union bureaucrats who paid for this poll and they are willing to create data to protect themselves.”
Numerous other polls have consistently shown strong support for school choice in Oklahoma.
According to an ongoing monthly tracking poll commissioned by EdChoice and conducted by the firm Morning Consult, 68 percent of Oklahoma parents support enactment of a voucher program that would allow them to use tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition, “including both religious and non-religious schools,” and 75 percent of Oklahoma parents support education savings accounts.
A poll of 500 registered Oklahoma voters conducted in January 2022 by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates on behalf of the American Federation for Children found 65 percent of all respondents said they favor school choice. That poll described school choice as giving parents “the right to use tax dollars associated with their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which better serves their needs.”
Polls showing support for school-choice policies also include a Braun Research survey in January 2014, a SoonerPoll survey in January 2015, a CHS survey in December 2015, a SoonerPoll survey in January 2016, a SoonerPoll survey in July 2016, a Cor Strategies survey in August 2017, a Cor Strategies survey in May 2018, a WPA Intelligence survey in January 2019, a WPA Intelligence survey in April 2019, a Cor Strategies survey in August 2019, an Amber Integrated survey in December 2019, and a Cor Strategies survey in August 2020.
Smith said WPA continues to find lopsided support for school choice in Oklahoma. The firm’s reputation for accuracy was bolstered when the firm released a Nov. 2, 2022, poll that showed Stitt leading Hofmeister 52 percent to 39 percent just days before the election. At that time, nearly all other public polls were showing Stitt with a lead of 3 points or less, or even a Hofmeister lead. Stitt ultimately won by a little over 13 points.
“Our data shows that 1,699,142 voters (or 76%) in Oklahoma from all backgrounds strongly support school freedom,” Smith said. “We all saw the abysmally inaccurate polling in Oklahoma last year showing Kevin Stitt losing or in a tight race when that never was the case. The future of Oklahoma students is too important to jeopardize it based on the results of a misleading push poll.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.