Education , Law & Principles

Ray Carter | June 20, 2022

Lawmaker makes false claim about own district

Ray Carter

As lawmakers have debated school-choice expansion this year, including creation of Education Savings Accounts that allow tax funding to follow a child to any school, one objection raised by some opponents is that there are not enough private schools in rural Oklahoma to serve students.

But state Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, took that claim further than most in a recent radio interview on KCLI in western Oklahoma.

“I’m in rural Oklahoma,” West said. “I ain’t got a private school within dadgum two hours of me. I’ll never vote for a voucher.”

But independent research has demonstrated that many of West’s constituents live within relatively easy driving distance of a private school—and photos show West has personally visited some of the private schools he claimed do not exist anywhere near his district.

In 2018, Andrew D. Catt, the director of state research and special projects for EdChoice, reviewed data from Oklahoma to determine if “kids in this fairly rural state actually have nearby private school options to choose from?”

Catt found that 86 percent of all K-12 students in Oklahoma lived within a 30-minute drive from a private school. In fact, a strong majority—59 percent of students in the state—lived within 10 minutes of at least one private school and 70 percent lived within a 15-minute drive of a private school.

Catt found only 4 percent of Oklahoma students lived more than a 45-minute drive from a private school, contrary to West’s claim of a two-hour-plus drive for students in his area.

As part of that project, Catt also produced a map of Oklahoma, color-coded to indicate how far people lived from a private school across the entire state. The map indicated that much of West’s district was within 30 minutes of a private school in 2018 and no part of the district was two hours away from a private school.

West’s district includes Delaware and Mayes counties. The Cross Christian Academy, a private school, is located near Disney in Delaware County. The school is a 40-minute drive from West’s hometown of Grove.

While other private schools lie outside West’s district, they are still within easy driving distance for many of his constituents.

Just 29 percent of students in Grove Public Schools were proficient or better in the 2020-2021 school year.

Mount Olive Lutheran School in Miami is about 35 minutes from Grove. Ketchum Adventist Academy near Vinita is a similar drive from the Grove area. It’s possible to leave Grove and reach the Cowboy Junction Christian School in the Vinita area in around 40 minutes.

William Bradford Christian School in Pryor is further from Grove but is still within 30 minutes of parts of West’s district.

While referring to his district in the KCLI interview, West again declared, “I don’t have private schools.”

Lawmaker Has Visited Private Schools in His Area

But West has visited rural private schools in or near his district and even posed for pictures when scholarship-fund check presentations were made.

On Sept. 27, 2018, West posed for a picture at a scholarship check presentation at The Cross Christian Academy. The same day, he attended a scholarship-fund check presentation and posed for a picture with students and officials at Ketchum Adventist Academy.

Polling continues to show strong support across Oklahoma for increasing the number of educational options available to families.

According to the latest monthly tracking poll commissioned by EdChoice and conducted by the firm Morning Consult, just 35 percent of Oklahomans think things are headed in the “right direction” in their local school district and a majority of parents would choose an option other than their local traditional public school if it were feasible. The poll showed just 40 percent of Oklahoma parents would choose their regular public school, while 33 percent would choose private school, 13 percent would home school, and 7 percent would prefer a public charter school.

The Morning Consult poll found 77 percent of Oklahoma school parents support the creation of “education savings accounts” (ESAs) for K–12 education, which the poll defined as providing parents with “a government-authorized savings account” that can be used for educational purposes including private-school tuition.

One reason for the high level of support is concern that local public schools are often failing students.

According to the results of state testing, just 29 percent of students in Grove schools in West’s district were proficient or better in all subjects and grades tested in the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent for which results are available.

While funding is often blamed for poor performance in Oklahoma public schools, the Morning Consult poll found parents believe sufficient funding has been provided—once they learn the figure for actual per-pupil spending.

When simply asked if school funding is too low, the Morning Consult poll found 63 percent of adults and 59 percent of school parents answered “yes.” But when respondents were told that Oklahoma spends an average of $7,940 per student, just 43 percent of adults and 36 percent of parents believed that school spending was too low.

While West argues that rural students will not benefit from the passage of an ESA law or similar school-choice measures, supporters counter that allowing funds to follow a child will make rural private schools more feasible.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican who fought to create an Education Savings Account law in Oklahoma this year, previously said he has been contacted by rural citizens who believe an ESA will make it financially possible for them to open new rural private schools.

“I’ve gotten emails from around the state of people saying, ‘For the first time we see a realistic opportunity for our church to create … educational opportunity for kids that we never thought we could,’” Treat said. “‘For the first time it’s viable that we could have an education system within our church.’”

He noted there are more private schools in rural areas than many people realize and said those numbers will increase if funds follow students, allowing a marketplace to arise in rural areas.

“This narrative that there are no private options in rural Oklahoma is a false narrative,” Treat said. “Now, are there less private options currently? Yes. Are there going to be less if we pass this? No. It’s going to create a marketplace that if you want to create educational opportunities for your kids in whatever town, you can do it. It can be viable.”

Even school-choice opponents have conceded that new private schools will likely open if funding follows each child. During Senate debate on the ESA bill this year, state Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, predicted new schools would appear “all over the state” if the bill became law.

The KCLI interview is not the only instance in which West has recently made a false statement.

Earlier this year, members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed House Bill 2486, a measure that would roll back state-pension reforms that are saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

In addition to reversing progress on state pension liabilities, the legislation would have shifted state lawmakers into a new, likely more lucrative, retirement system.

Although West opposed HB 2486, he denied that other House lawmakers had voted to alter their own retirement benefits. He declared in a Facebook post, “The legislature was not included in this bill,” and insisted any reports stating that House lawmakers voted to boost their own retirement benefits were “misleading,” “false,” and “BS.”

But a subsequent analysis by Senate staff found that “legislators would have been impacted similar to all other state employees” by the bill’s passage, and pointed out that multiple provisions of the House bill related to legislators’ own retirement benefits.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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