John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, provides up-to-date insight about the politics of education in his state. One remarkable development, which he describes, is the likely approval of a “religious charter school.”

Incidentally, the rightwing Manhattan Institute—where bigot Chris Rufo is a senior fellow—says the time has come to fund religious charter schools.

This week in Oklahoma, as expected, State Superintendent Ryan Walters, Governor Kevin Stitt, and other far rightwing extremists continued their divisive and cruel campaigns. Legal and legislative investigations of scandals involving Gov. Stitt’s staffers were also advanced. And, as was also expected, more Republicans pushed back against ideology-driven privatization schemes. Also, the effects of Gov. Stitt’s unprecedented takeover of five state agencies have continued to make headlines in the Oklahoman and the Tulsa World.

As the Tulsa World reported:

“Walters’ proposed new rules on parental rights [which] would require schools to allow parents to inspect sexual education classroom materials and to have schools honor their written objections “in whole or in part” to sex ed “or any other instruction questioning beliefs or practices in sex, morality, or religion…”

And, “Walters’ proposed new rules on school library materials [to] define ‘pornographic materials’” and “to submit to the state a complete list of all books and other materials available in their school libraries and have a written policy for reviewing the ‘educational suitability and age-appropriate nature.’”

Walters also removed photos of educators in the Education Department Hall of Fame, to prevent the highlighting of “Union leaders and association heads.”  Walters said the Education Department will not be showing “union bosses.”

Oklahoma also made national news for ignoring the law requiring charter schools to be “‘nonsectarian’ in their programs and operations and that no sponsor may ‘authorize a charter school or program that is affiliated with a nonpublic sectarian school or religious institution.’” A Catholic church applied for a virtual school charter. This religious charter school would be funded by “as much as $2.5 million in state money to serve a projected 500 students in its first year.” The school would hire “educators, administrators, and coaches committed to living and teaching Christ’s truth” as understood by the Catholic Church.

Education Week also explained that some “legal experts are horrified at the proposition.”  For instance, Derek Black says, “The explicit merger of public education with religious organizations to deliver a public education to students is something we haven’t seen or even contemplated happening in our lifetimes.”

Moreover, “MAGA” Republicans continue to attack parents of transgender children. For instance, Sen. Shane Jett “said kids are being told lies that they can transition from one gender to another.” He added, “There is no spectrum of choice, … You are a boy. You are a girl.” Jett says “people are cashing in on transgender care” and he claimed “it involves horrific surgeries with cascading consequences.”

On the other hand, House Speaker McCall who previously opposed vouchers and who will probably be running for governor, advanced HB 2775 and HB 1935 which pushed back against Walters, Stitt, and other rightwingers.  I’ve long respected the legislative leaders who stood in support of McCall’s bills, but I don’t know how to respond to that compromise. On one hand, I’d offer a concurring opinion in regard to Rep. Rhonda Baker, who said, “We figured out the solution without selling out to special interest groups that were putting pressure on us,” and I’d push back in terms of what happened when the House members were “very diligent about being careful to protect our constituencies.” But clearly, McCall’s constituencies were rewarded.

Yes, these House members proposed a $150 million pay raise, while protecting teachers from another doomed-to-fail merit pay gamble, but they offered a mere $2,500 raise, which is 1/2 of the Senate’s proposed raise. McCall protected rural and affluent schools but the funding formula capped payments at $2 million per district, meaning that urban districts that disproportionately serve poor children and children of color would be discriminated against. (An insider estimates that the largest districts will only receive a $250 per pupil increase, which is ½ of what smaller districts will receive. Another insider reports that the bill, as it reads today, would mean the high-poverty Oklahoma City Public Schools System would receive less than 1/10th of what a smaller district could receive.) Fortunately, former Speaker of the House Steve Lewis predicts that such a formula would be overturned in court. 

Yes, McCall shifted $300 million in education funds away from vouchers to districts. But they then shifted $300 million in tax revenues to tax credits, which Nondoc correctly described as “slightly different than the education savings accounts — or school vouchers.” So, in describing their tax incentives for the rich without using the word voucher, the Speaker could benefit politically, while actually providing a system worse than some other voucher bills.

Steve Lewis explains why that is the case. He lists the tuition of top private schools: “Casady, $24,850; Bishop McGuinness $15,005 plus $1,195 in fees; Bishop Kelly, $9,845; Cascia Hall, $16,800; and Holland Hall, $21,449.” So, “one could argue that the $5,000 credit is not going to help many new students go to one of these schools. The credit is most likely a gift to people already sending their children to private schools.”  

The compromise bill also offers a political bailout to Stitt and Walters, which is understandable for Republicans serving their most powerful constituencies. Both bills reward the affluent, but won’t help poor families that will be losing Covid-era health and food services.

Not being a Republican insider, I’m not qualified to judge the education policy concessions that were made by pro-education Republicans. Given my bias towards optimism, I would note that those trade-offs enable push-back against Stitt’s unprecedented takeover of state agencies.  The World’s Carmen Forman reports, “Republican lawmakers want to reduce the number of appointments Stitt gets to the State Board of EducationVeterans Commission and the Turnpike Authority board — all governing bodies currently stacked with the governor’s appointees.” 

In order to defend public schools, the complete control of the Board of Education by non-educators and privatizers must be reversed. So, Reps. Baker, and Rep. McBride “would dilute the governor’s near-total control of the Oklahoma State Board of Education. It [their bill] cleared the House Common Education Committee, which Baker chairs, on a unanimous 9-0 vote with no discussion or debate.”

By the way, McBride said, “I hope the governor does not take this as a personal attack.” But he was more explicit in his effort to block Ryan Walter’s rule-making. As Foreman reports, “McBride said he doesn’t want Walters making administrative rules for the State Department of Education as a ‘knee-jerk reaction.’” And he’s challenging the Board’s power to downgrade a school system’s accreditation because Walters criticized their books.  

When McBride’s bill passed by a 10 to 1 votes, he spoke his mind: “we currently have a legitimate problem. I want to put this gentleman [Walters] in a box… focus on public education and not his crazy destruction of public education.” McBride also said explicitly, “Its fear mongering, I think …And teachers, librarians, superintendents, principals are in fear of what he might do.”

Moreover, regarding the other four state agency battles, “Rep. Danny Sterling cited recent drama related to some of the governor’s appointments to the Veterans Commission as a prime example of why changes are needed. And the attorney general recently said Stitt did not follow state law when appointing three members of the commission.” And recently, a district judge ruledthat Stitt’s Turnpike Authority did not follow the Open Meetings law when funding a $5 billion project. 

Also, Stitt’s other two longstanding scandals are still unfolding. Newly-elected Attorney General Gentner Drummond is taking over the investigation of the Tourism Department and the “Swadley’s deal that spurred a criminal probe, an audita state lawsuit and numerous questions about why the business appeared to be overpaid for its work.” 

The most recent, ongoing scandal was that, “Matt Stacy, who served as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s hospital surge plan adviser during the COVID-19 pandemic, was charged with 13 felony counts.” The World explained, “He was accused of paying residents to be ‘ghost owners’ of grow operations for Chinese organized crime operations and other out-of-state clients.”  This also should be another reminder of the death toll that resulted from the confusion prompted by Stitt moving the Health Center’s testing lab as Covid was surging.

So, there are serious problems with even the best House bill, but maybe resistance to it will press legislators to support Republican Sen. Adam Pugh’s excellent bill. It would cost less by investing in schools, while not giving into pressure to help the affluent, and not discriminating against the poor.

Moreover, the pro-education Republicans understand that school improvement is impossible without building trusting relationships. And that is impossible until Stitt and Walters stop spreading hate and falsehoods. I also expect they understand that our democracy is in danger, and we must fight back against rightwing lies. 

And, maybe more of the rest of their party will join them.