John Thompson sees some hopeful signs that educators and legistors—especially Republican legislators—are willing to speak out against the attacks on public schools. Perhaps they saw the recent poll that showed that 75% of the public is opposed to vouchers. Perhaps they read in one of my books that merit pay has repeatedly failed and that it discourages collaboration and teamwork.

He writes:

Oklahoma schools have faced a long history of ideology-driven attacks that produced a “culture of compliance” where educators learned to keep their heads low, and avoid being targets. The two biggest exceptions were the1990 teacher rally at the Capitol and the passage of HB 1017’s funding increases, and the 2018 teacher walkout. But today’s MAGA-driven assaults have put previous threats on steroids, seeking to cripple or destroy public education and other public services. After this year’s reelection of Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Ryan Walters, a worst case scenario seemed to be unfolding. It now looks like brazen falsehoods being spread by corporate powers such as the Koch brothers and ALEC, and local MAGAs have energized a diverse, bipartisan coalition of truth tellers.

Frankly, I’ve never seen so many education supporters opening up like they have this February. And as the legislature convened, more and more allies of public education have begun to say what’s on their minds.

In his latest tantrum, Ryan Walters further spurred the pushback by threating the accreditation of the Oklahoma City and Putnam City school systems for making “a pornographic book called ‘Let’s Talk About It’” available to students. Both districts deny they have the book. Walters’ source was a rightwing social media account, “Libs of TikTok.”

The Tulsa World’s Ginnie Graham challenged Walters’ attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), writing, “DEI is not a euphemism for race, affirmative action or critical race theory. It is not a liberal indoctrination to make white people feel shame. It is neither Marxism nor socialism.” Graham also explains that only 26% of Oklahomans have a bachelors degree, but within five years, “two-thirds of the top 100 critical professions will require a college degree.” And as Chancellor Allison Garrett explains, DEI is an essential tool for meeting that challenge.

The head of the Oklahoma City Public School Foundation, Mary Melon-Tully, editorialized in the Oklahoman, “A lot of the headlines and media attention have been focused on these divisive bills.” She then wrote in support of pro-education Republicans’ bills, like those of Sen. Adam Pugh and Rep. Rhonda Baker who have focused on “a multi-level pay raise,” paid maternity leave, creation of an Oklahoma Teacher Corps, mentoring, changes to the A-F report card, STEM preparedness, updating the funding formula, and better accountability for virtual and in-person charter schools, as well as “funding literacy instructional teams,” career-readiness, modernizing state graduation requirements, modifying the computer science curriculum, and “adding definition for English Language Learners.”

Similarly, Dr. Pam Deering wrote in the Oklahoman that it’s time to stop being “dominated by divisive culture war talking points,” [and] “focus on the true issues at hand.” Dr. Deering gave an overview of successes in schools, such as Lawton’s Life Ready Center, northwest Oklahoma’s High Plains Technology Center and Technical Applications Programs, Oklahoma City’s STEM academy, Norman’s Oklahoma Aviation Academy, and Sand Spring’s hybrid and virtual programs.”

Then the Stillwater News Press editorialized:

It would be nice to see the focus go to pumping more of that money into public schools, the ones that can’t refuse a child based on disability or who their parents are or how bad they are at basketball.

It would be good if the money wasn’t eventually going to be funneled to a for-profit lobbyist.

It would be great if the focus was on hiring and retention of dedicated teachers and staff.

As Walters pushes for pay-for-performance, the press has displayed a candor that previously would have usually been seen as too risky to articulate bluntly. For instance, the Enid News reported on the thoughts of Erika Wright, founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, who said, that the “politicizing a pay scale and a pay raise for teachers that are college-educated that are educating our children is ridiculous.” … “That is just an effort to add more divisiveness and inflammatory rhetoric.”

Bixby’s School Superintendent Rob Miller’s Tulsa World editorial was even blunter. He described teacher merit pay as “one of the more persistent and seemingly indestructible zombie ideas related to education.” It’s been “tried again and again since the 1920s.” And it’s only been 12 years since “the $12 billion merit pay experiment failed once more.” He also cited W. Edwards Deming, who “argued that merit pay ‘nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, and nourishes rivalry and politics.’”

Our last pay-for-performance experiment, as was predicted, started by corrupting school data. Now, Miller adds, the teachers “who are supposed to reap the rewards” … “know that merit pay undermines collaboration and teamwork. They understand that it would corrupt the culture of their school.”

And it is especially encouraging that bipartisan collection of legislators, and Republicans like Sen. Dave Rader, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and Rep. Jeff Boatman, are making such thoughtful arguments against Walters’ and Stitt’s plans. The Tulsa World reports, Sen. Rader says “the state’s tax structure is being reviewed but that he feels no great urgency to make sudden, drastic changes. The state “is in a good position,” he said, with “a nice surplus and a relatively low tax burden.”

Moreover, Rep. Boatman “said there are ways to return value to taxpayers besides just cutting taxes.” He said, “Sure, there’s going to be some tax cuts,” but “there’s going to be some things we invest in through agencies and through services we do as a state. We can give money back that way.” Then Boatman suggested using some of the reserves to fund “some pretty incredible” community projects.

Finally, the Tulsa World’s Carmen Foreman reports, “House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, recently reiterated his opposition to school vouchers.” But she also reports, “House Republicans are expected to unveil an education plan that would expand school choice options in Oklahoma without vouchers.”

And, as Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer explains, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board “is set to consider a Catholic charter school this week in what is viewed as a national test case for publicly-funded religious education.”

Given Oklahoma’s Republican majority, and the unconscionable number of Republicans who have remained largely silent regarding the assaults on democracy and public institutions during the Trump era, our future requires more conservatives and Republicans to embrace the wisdom and values of their colleagues and other supporters who are making a stand for our schools. The future remains uncertain, it’s looking more likely that the legislature will come together and at least stop the most destructive rightwing campaigns.