Ray Carter | November 9, 2022

School choice prevails in Oklahoma vote

Ray Carter

The issue of school choice, including programs that allow parents to use taxpayer dollars at private schools—was on the ballot in Oklahoma this year. And school-choice supporters won in dramatic fashion.

“The message was sent loud and clear: In Oklahoma, we’re going to do more than any other state in the country to empower parents,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, who was elected the next state superintendent of public instruction.

Both Gov. Kevin Stitt and Walters, who serves as Stitt’s secretary of education, were strong proponents of the “Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program” legislation advanced this year to provide taxpayer funds to parents for use at any school, including private schools.

Opponents of school choice attacked Stitt and Walters throughout the campaign, lambasting their support for school choice. Millions of dollars were spent by nebulous special-interest groups attacking Stitt and Walters for their support of funding students rather than solely funding systems.

An ad by Oklahoma’s Children Our Future, declared Stitt was “a danger to rural public schools.” Mailers funded by Imagine This Oklahoma told voters that Stitt’s support for school choice meant he would “cut funding for” (insert local school name) “to pay for private schools in big cities.”

An attack mailer funded by the Leadership Action Fund claimed that Stitt’s support for school choice would “cost millions of dollars” to administer, put “bureaucrats in charge” of how parents can educate their children, and send “public school dollars to corporate education companies with little oversight, increasing the risk of corruption.”

An ad by Oklahoma’s Children Our Future called Walters a “corrupt insider.” That ad directed viewers to a website that claimed Walters would “take money away from public schools.” Another Oklahoma’s Children Our Future ad claimed that Walters’ education plan was to “shut our schools down, kill our small towns, and force great teachers to quit.”

One website by Oklahoma’s Children Our Future even claimed to inform voters, “How much money could your child's school lose under the Stitt-Walters education plan?”

Those messages were also used by Stitt and Walters’ Democratic opponents.

During a gubernatorial debate with Stitt, Democratic candidate Joy Hofmeister said school choice is “a rural school killer” and that any program allowing funds to follow students would result in the “dismantling of public schools.”

At a debate with Walters, Democratic superintendent candidate Jena Nelson made similar statements, declaring that school vouchers “are a way to defund public education and they are a rural school killer.”

Nelson said rural Oklahomans were strongly opposed to school choice and preferred to instead simply increase spending on public schools, even though increased school spending in recent years has not generated improvement in academic outcomes.

“There are so many Republicans and Democrats who are united on this issue, all the way from Antlers to Arnett,” Nelson said. “They do not want to see vouchers. They want to make sure that our public schools are fully funded.”

Election returns told a different story. Both Stitt and Walters, and their pro-school-choice messages, dominated in rural Oklahoma.

Votes for Hofmeister and Nelson were concentrated in Oklahoma’s two urban-core counties and two other counties that are home to the state’s biggest universities, which are typically left-leaning.

Hofmeister carried only three of Oklahoma’s 77 counties—Oklahoma, Cleveland, and Tulsa, and Tulsa County was a narrow win for Hofmeister. Similarly, Nelson carried only three counties—Oklahoma, Cleveland, and Payne, and she barely carried Payne County. (Walters won Tulsa County by a narrow margin.)

In the vast majority of the remaining 74 counties, Stitt and Walters received 60 percent or more of the vote, often substantially more. In the three panhandle counties, Walters received between 75 percent and 85 percent of the vote while Stitt pulled an even larger share. In Cimarron County, Hofmeister received less than 9 percent of the vote.

Statewide, Stitt received more than 55 percent of the vote while Walter won with nearly 57 percent.

Special-interest groups also made school choice an issue in legislative races.

Largely identical attack mailers funded by Independent Voice PAC claimed that Stitt and two Oklahoma City Republicans—state Reps. Max Wolfley and Eric Roberts — “want to give schools a rotten deal,” attacking them for supporting school choice programs. One mailer claimed Roberts “has a track record of wanting to defund our public schools” and would take “as much as $17,500 per child away from our public schools” for school-choice programs.

Both lawmakers prevailed in their reelection races.

The success of candidates who support school choice, from the top to the bottom of the ballot, did not go unnoticed by groups that have been working to expand school-choice opportunities for Oklahoma families.

“Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent-elect Ryan Walters are steadfast champions of students and parents, and Oklahoma voters rewarded them tonight for that commitment,” American Federation for Children-Oklahoma senior advisor Jennifer Carter said in an election-night press release. “On the other hand, teachers’ unions and the education establishment did everything in their power this cycle to sling mud at school choice champions and prop up defenders of the status quo—and they still lost. They spent millions trying to redefine school choice. They spread lies and mistruths, but the public has seen through it and embraced those who advocate for parents and students instead of institutions and bureaucrats.”

“We look forward to Gov. Stitt and Superintendent-elect Walters building on the momentum they earned tonight and fighting to make sure the voices of parents are heard in the 2023 legislative session,” Carter continued. “It is past time for our Republican policymakers to unite and deliver a victory for Oklahoma families by providing true educational freedom in Oklahoma public education.”

In their victory speeches, Stitt and Walters both touched on the importance of school choice as part of a broad focus on improving education outcomes in Oklahoma.

“Over the next four years, we’re going to continue to build a school system for our children—one that meets their unique needs and grows their God-given talents,” Stitt said. “We’re going to ensure that every child has access to a quality education, regardless of their ZIP code or their financial resources.”

“What you’re going to see,” Walters said, “is a commitment to ensure that every child is empowered through parents’ options.”

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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