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Education

School choice big winner in Oklahoma primary elections

Ray Carter | June 24, 2024

In 2023, Oklahoma policymakers enacted one of the most robust, statewide school-choice programs in the nation.

Opponents claimed school choice programs, which help Oklahoma families pay for private school, are deeply unpopular in rural areas.

That theory was put to the electoral test during the June 18 primary elections when school choice was a major issue in a rural eastern Oklahoma district.

When offered a stark contrast between two candidates, one supporting school choice and the other with a record of extreme opposition to school choice, the voters made their preference clear: They voted for the school-choice candidate in a landslide.

In the Republican primary for House District 13, incumbent state Rep. Neil Hays, R-Checotah, faced off against Muskogee Public Schools Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall.

In 2023, Hays was among the legislators who voted to create the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit program, which provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition. Families earning below $75,000 qualify for a $7,500 tax credit and the credit declines as incomes increase, with families earning more than $250,000 qualifying for the $5,000 credit.

The program has proven wildly popular across Oklahoma. All $150 million in tax credits made available in year one of the program have been claimed.

In contrast to Hays, Mendenhall was among the most vocal opponents of school choice programs in Oklahoma.

In 2010, when Mendenhall served as superintendent of Broken Arrow Public Schools, the district refused to comply with state law regarding a school-choice program that helps children with special needs, such as autism, pay for private school—the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities (LNH) program.

Mendenhall vocally defended the district’s failure to obey state law and instead deny families the money they were owed.

At that time, Eric Rassbach, national litigation director for the Becket Fund, which represented the impacted families in court, described officials like Mendenhall as putting “the ‘heartless’ in ‘heartless bureaucrat.’” Rassbach said the schools were holding “special-needs kids hostage” for financial gain.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program in a unanimous decision.

Mendenhall also opposed the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit program, singling out his opposition to the tax credit when asked in a candidate survey to name an area of public policy that he was “personally passionate about.”

Mendenhall wrote, “While the plan, in theory, allows for students be able [sic] to escape bad schools, it is not the case. Most of the individuals applying for these tax credits already have their children attending private schools. Therefore, these public funds are being reallocated to private school education.”

More than two-thirds of credits issued through the program this year went to children from low-income and middle-class families, according to data from the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

Both candidates in the race had experience working in public schools.  Currently the owner of an insurance agency, Hays previously worked for 12 years in schools in Muskogee as a coach and taught history and math.

School choice was a major issue in the Republican primary in House District 13, which lies within McIntosh, Muskogee, and Wagoner counties and includes the communities of Checotah, Haskell, Muskogee, Okay, Oktaha, Rentiesville, Shady Grove, Summit, Taft, and Wainwright.

The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, which supports school choice, highlighted Mendenhall’s opposition to school choice through campaign communications.

One Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund ad stated, “Mendenhall sides with liberal unions and special interests by opposing school choice for Oklahoma parents. As superintendent, Mendenhall refused state scholarship funds for students with special needs, denying parents their right to choose what’s best for their child’s future.”

On election night, Hays won the primary in resounding fashion, receiving nearly 79 percent of the vote.

“It’s still the greatest honor of my life to represent my friends, neighbors and community,” Hays wrote in a Facebook post after his victory. “Even after having served for the past two years, I don’t take this responsibility to serve our families lightly. I’m committed to being a strong conservative voice for the Oklahoma values we hold dear.”

Candidates Tout School-Choice Support

The school-choice issue also played a prominent role in several other races across Oklahoma.

In the Shawnee-based Senate District 17, incumbent state Sen. Shane Jett faced three Republican primary opponents, including former state Sen. Ron Sharp.

Jett supported the creation of the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit program and separately filed legislation to create a similar school-choice voucher program.

Sharp, who lost a re-election bid to Jett in 2020, was among the most vocal opponents of school choice during his prior legislative tenure. In 2017, Sharp even labeled a school-choice bill the “Dr. Josef Mengele bill,” comparing school choice to Nazi medical experiments.

“Dr. Mengele was a doctor in Nazi Germany who would bleed his victims slowly and see how long they could survive,” Sharp said. “That is just what this bill does. We are slowly draining public education’s money to see how long it can survive.”

On election night, Jett won re-election without a runoff. Sharp drew only 27 percent of the vote.

In a Facebook post written after his victory, Jett wrote, “We are grateful to Almighty God who turned what was meant to hurt our family and our campaign to our ultimate benefit. We are thankful and humbled by so much support from our community! We won and won BIG…”

In a similar race in northeast Oklahoma, incumbent state Sen. Blake Stephens, R-Tahlequah, was one of only two Republican senators who opposed the creation of the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit program in 2023.

This year, he drew two opponents in the Republican primary. On election night, Stephens found himself headed to a runoff after receiving only 38 percent of the vote. His Aug. 27 runoff opponent is Julie McIntosh, who has practiced in family medicine and served as medical director for the Muskogee and Okmulgee county health departments.

In addition to being a doctor, McIntosh is a longtime homeschool mother who supports school choice. On her campaign website, McIntosh vowed to promote school choice if elected.

“Julie McIntosh believes in empowering parents with choices in their children’s education,” her website stated. “She supports school choice initiatives that place the ultimate decision regarding education into parents’ hands. Options should include public school, charter schools, private schools, homeschooling and tax credits which allow parents to choose the best education for their children.”

A post on McIntosh’s campaign Facebook page vowed that she would “stand for school choice” and “fight tooth and nail to give parents the freedom to choose the best education for their children.”

In prominent races where school-choice supporters drew primary opponents, many of those opponents quickly identified themselves as supporters of school choice as well, demonstrating the popularity of the cause.

State Rep. Denise Crosswhite Hader, R-Piedmont, supported the creation of the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit program but drew primary opposition from Shea Bracken in the Republican primary for House District 41. However, Bracken campaigned as a supporter of school choice.

Crosswhite Hader won the race with 57 percent of the vote.

Similarly, state Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, supported the creation of the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit program. But Garvin’s primary opponent, former schoolteacher Kendal Sacchieri, did as well.

Sacchieri’s campaign website plainly stated, “As a former public educator, Kendal realizes that public schools may not be the best option for every student. Parents must be empowered to make the best decision for their children’s education and their hard-earned money should remain in their own pockets to fund that decision. More and more parents want this option for their kids and Oklahoma can and must do better.”

Sacchieri received 53 percent of the primary vote to become the Republican nominee.

The American Federation for Children spent money touting incumbents who supported school choice, including state Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair; Jett; state Sen. Julie Daniels; R-Bartlesville; state Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole; state Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlanda; state Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore; Hays; Crosswhite Hader; and state Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin, all of whom won their primary races. 

“Oklahoma lawmakers boldly took up the largest school choice expansion in the state’s history and passed one of the most substantial programs in the country last year,” said Ryan Cantrell, vice president of government affairs for the American Federation for Children. “Parents remember when legislators stand on the side of their children and again have recognized their efforts at the polls.”

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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