Stitt appointee makes clear his support for school choice

February 10, 2021

Ray Carter

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s latest appointment to the State Board of Education has left no doubt where he stands when parents are on one side of an education issue and school administrators and unions on the other.

“I’m a choice guy,” said Trent Smith. “I think parents know what’s best for their kids. I don’t fully understand why our system is set up the way that it is. I’m a capitalist. I know from experience that competition raises all boats. If a public school in some far-flung area of the state was underperforming and not being held accountable to their customers—the children that they serve—and the parents would like another place for their kids to go to school, absolutely, there should be other choices and options.”

Smith made those comments during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee, after Sen. J.J. Dossett asked if Smith would vote to allow the State Board of Education to sponsor a charter school after a local school district has refused to sponsor that same charter school.

“Just to clarify, you would be willing to override local elected officials’ decisions when it comes to maybe having another school district or school within the district?” asked Dossett, D-Owasso.

Smith said such decisions would be made on a “case by case basis, but if a local school is simply denying a charter school from being in their district because they’re afraid of the competition or because of anything that doesn’t have to do with the betterment of the children in that district, then I would be in favor of overriding them, yes.”

Smith also said he supports the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program, which allows families to use the tax dollars allotted for their child’s education to pay for private school. That program serves children with special needs, foster children, and some adopted children.

“I have several friends who are learning-disabled teachers that deal with that population of our students, and a lot of times the financing’s not there for them,” Smith said. “So if a local school can’t meet the needs of a child with these conditions, I don’t know why anybody would be against them being able to go to a place that is more suited for their needs.”

During the hearing, Democratic lawmakers indicated they viewed Smith’s work founding Every Kid Counts Oklahoma to be problematic.

When his children entered the public-school system and he first became more involved in education issues, Smith said he noted that formal groups existed to represent several entities in the system, but not the most important constituency.

“After kind of looking around, I realized that parents didn’t really have an organization for them,” Smith said. “So Every Kid Counts was kind of formed with the idea to give parents a voice in the education of their children.”

“You said you’re building a coalition of parents,” Dossett said. “What are the similarities within these parents? What do they want?”

“They want the ability to send their kids to school where they feel is best for them,” Smith said. “I think at the core, we have an education system here in Oklahoma that’s poorly ranked and has been for quite some time. Doing things the same way that we’ve done them and expecting different results is not probably going to work. If I tried to run my business the same way for 100 years, it probably would eventually fail as well.”

Smith said he “just wants my children to have better public-education outcomes. I want the rest of Oklahoma kids to have greater outcomes in education.”

Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, asked Smith if his service with Every Kid Counts Oklahoma represented a “conflict of interest.”

“I resigned from that board for that exact reason,” Smith replied. “I thought it might look funny also, so I volunteered to resign and I have.”

While some lawmakers objected to Smith’s prior advocacy work for parents, others said that is the proper focus.

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, told Smith the realities of serving on the State Board of Education meant Smith would “not please everybody” no matter what decisions he makes.

“But your goal isn’t to please everybody,” Pugh said. “So I just ask that you remember that you’re here to serve the kids and you’re here to serve the parents—and that is it. I’m afraid that sometimes we forget that. We think about the building. We think about the name on the building. We think about the system. We think about the institutions, but we forget that at the end of the day we serve the kids and we serve the families. And I think you’ll be incredibly successful if in everything you do you remember those two very simple things: You’re there for the kids and their families.”

Democrats also objected to Smith’s comments noting Oklahoma’s low national ranking on educational quality.

“I’m referring back to something that you just said: Are our public schools failing?” asked Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa.

“I don’t think anyone would consider 45th, 48th, as a great success,” Smith said. “There’s only 50 states. I think there are some schools and districts in Oklahoma that are doing an amazing job. I think there are pretty clearly some schools and districts in Oklahoma that are failing and literally Fs.”

Smith’s nomination advanced from the Senate Education Committee on a 10-3 vote. All Republicans voted in support, while all three “no” votes were cast by Democrats.