Education , Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | December 2, 2020

Teachers union to lawmakers: Ignore voters on school choice

Ray Carter

A recent poll showed 61 percent of Oklahoma voters support school-choice policies that allow parents to use tax funding to place their children in private schools.

In response, the head of the state’s largest teacher union is urging Oklahoma’s Republican lawmakers to look the other way.

In comments made to online news outlet NonDoc, Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) President Alicia Priest dismissed the poll’s findings.

“The questions on the poll are skewed to promote favor in the questioning itself,” Priest told NonDoc. “This survey is more about vouchers and privatizing public schools for profit than it is about meeting the education needs of our students.”

Robert Ruiz, executive director of Choice Matters, an organization that works to increase parent awareness of educational choices in Oklahoma, said Priest’s response discredits the OEA, not the poll results.

“It just shows how out of touch she is,” Ruiz said. “People need to understand that she is not the voice of education in Oklahoma.”

The poll question Priest dismissed as “skewed” asked respondents, “School choice gives parents the right to use tax dollars raised for their child’s education to send their child to the school of their choice whether it is public, private, online, or charter which best serves their needs. Generally speaking, do you favor or oppose the concept of school choice for Oklahoma?”

The question was one of several included in a poll of 500 registered voters that was conducted from September 20 to 24 by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates (CHS).

Of the 61 percent who favored school choice in the CHS poll, 40 percent strongly favored school choice, contrasted to just 24 percent who strongly opposed the concept. Among those with a child in the home, 65 percent supported school choice, and support for school choice was strong in both urban and rural areas. Republicans supported school choice by better than a three-to-one margin.

Numerous polls, commissioned by multiple entities, have long shown strong support in Oklahoma for school-choice policies that allow taxpayer funds to follow a child to any school, including private schools.

Polls showing support for such school-choice policies include a Braun Research survey in January 2014, a Tarrance Group survey in July 2014, a SoonerPoll survey in January 2015, a Tarrance Group 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.

This year’s state elections also bolster the poll’s findings.

Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, has championed school choice in the Senate during his tenure. Fresh off a successful reelection effort, Rader said his on-the-ground experience highlighted the growing appeal of educational opportunity.

“In contrasting the campaign of 2016 to 2020 there was a marked difference in the interest—if not demand—from parents at the doors I knocked regarding school choice,” Rader said. “In 2016 there was not much interest while in 2020 there was an overwhelming interest from the parents with children attending public schools.”

In her comments to NonDoc, Priest said parents “have options already,” pointing to the online-learning alternatives now offered by many districts and parents’ limited ability to transfer students to other public-school districts.

Yet parents across the state have often decried those online learning options as subpar or worse. In Stillwater, a group of parents has even filed a lawsuit to force the district to provide in-person instruction as an option along with online learning. In Owasso, the school reopened only after parents threatened to target school-board members with recall elections. In a wide range of other districts—including Deer Creek and Edmond—parents have signed online petitions calling for the full-time reopening of those schools.

At the same time, the OEA has been among the most vocal opponents of giving parents any choice other than online learning, previously decrying in-person instruction as a threat to teachers who “want to stay alive.”

As the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), the OEA has supported a wide range of stances, not only on school choice but also on other issues. The NEA/OEA gave an “F” grade to most of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation this year, giving an “A” only to U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City, who subsequently lost her reelection bid. The union gave higher marks to lawmakers who supported legislation to create new legal rights based on “gender identity,” provide a path to citizenship to individuals who entered the United States illegally, and impose new forms of gun control.

In 2019, OEA members participated in the NEA’s Representative Assembly. At that event, delegates approved resolutions declaring support for “the fundamental right to abortion,” endorsing federal legislation that would allow certain biological males to use girls’ bathrooms in public schools, calling on the U.S. government “to accept responsibility for the destabilization of Central American countries,” and supporting reparation payments for slavery, among other things.

Ruiz noted that the recent launch of Parent Voice Oklahoma, an organization that works to elevate the role of parents in school decisions, occurred in part because parents felt the wishes of groups like the OEA were being prioritized over the needs of students and families.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons why this statewide parent group is forming, because they are tired of other people being lifted up as a voice of education in Oklahoma and making decisions or making statements for them when they don’t represent them,” Ruiz said.

Jennifer James, a mother of children in the Deer Creek school district, specifically addressed that issue at the recent rally that launched Parent Voice Oklahoma.

“I’m not willing to let somebody else be ‘the voice’ for education in Oklahoma anymore,” James said. “Because they’ve been doing it since very early on, and we’re still failing our students.”

In his work with parents, Ruiz said he has encountered less opposition to school choice than a lack of understanding about how such policies work.

“Parents are very interested in school choice,” Ruiz said. “The problem is that when you speak to an everyday parent, they’re usually not familiar with the term. But when you explain to them what it is, they immediately say, ‘Why didn’t we have this yesterday?’”

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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