Historian and retired teacher John Thompson updates us on the toxic MAGA politics that is undermining the state’s economy and the future of the state.

Republican politicians are competing to see who can be more extremist, more MAGA than the other far-right zanies. Although an unreleased poll conducted by a Republican pollster found that Oklahomans are overwhelmingly opposed to vouchers, the Governor, the state commissioner of education, and legislators are competing to see who can offer the biggest voucher and who is most indifferent to public schools. Quality of education is a lure for corporations; indifference is not.

Similarly, MAGA Republicans are competing to denounce corporations that are committed to socially responsible policies regarding ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance). Corporations don’t usually like government interfering in their internal policy making, especially those attempting to present a public face of social responsibility.

Thompson writes:

Monday marked the beginning of the second half of the Oklahoma legislative session. The first half was largely dominated by the MAGAs rhetoric, and led by Gov. Kevin Stitt, Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, and the House leader Charles McCall, as they tried to be tougher than Ron DeSantis and the other extremists. But the top headlines, recently, have shifted to the state’s failure to persuade Panasonic and Volkswagen to make major investments in Oklahoma.

On National Public Radio, Sen. Pro Temp Greg Treat sounded like a timid version of old school, adult Republicans. Treat seemed to be pushing back on the $300 million House voucher bill (called a tax credit), saying we need to protect funding for the 90% of students who will remain in public schools. But, the House bill then advanced in the Senate Education Committee with 100% of Republican votes. Perhaps the timid nature of Treat’s comments about pushing back on the House’s demands foreshadowed the Senate increase in the size of tax credits (vouchers) by 50% per student.

Although the Senate committee increased the size of the teacher pay raise, it also provided steps towards Ryan Walters’ merit pay for 10% of educators, which would promote even more of a reward and punish school culture.

Democrat Sen. Julia Kirt explained that the private school tax credit cap is $250,000 which is almost ten times as great as the average Oklahoma wage. Only 3% of taxpayers would hit that limit, so “almost any Oklahoman could claim $7,500 tax credit for private school.”

Moreover, education supporter Greg Jennings gave examples of two private religious schools that are being constructed which could undermine the survival of two rural districts (serving 3,800 students combined). Even when the goal was $5,000 vouchers, these religious schools showed how private schools could be replicated, with serious negative consequences, in rural areas. The plan is to expand from pre-k to 8th grade by 2024. Students would be taught a “Christian Based Education.”

In other words, the MAGA culture wars may have undermined corporate investments seeking to create good-paying, 21st century jobs, but vouchers could spark a boom in Christian Nationalism.

Then, Treat addressed the loss of the Volkswagen plant to Canada and called for a study as to why it happened. He compared it to the bipartisan study which launched Oklahoma City’s growth in the 1990s after United Airlines rejected the city’s bid because of our lack of social, cultural and educational institutions. As the Oklahoman’s Ben Felder reported, despite a $700 million incentive, Volkswagen chose to invest in Canada with its “strong ESG practices,” rather than the mindset expressed by Jonathan Small, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs’president:

Not only do ESG policies penalize energy production to prop up “green’ companies, but they also pressure businesses to take stances on non-economic issues such as redefining gender, promoting Critical Race Theory, and abortion tourism.

Surely, even the most extreme MAGAs know that those beliefs would make investors cautious about coming to Oklahoma after the state’s “Legislature and governor banned state investment funds from working with companies that utilize ESG policies.” After all, Stitt had said, “don’t expect support from us unless you reject ESG.”

Neither would investors be encouraged by State Treasurer Todd Russ, who “issued letters to more than 160 companies giving them an April 1 deadline to confirm they don’t ‘boycott energy companies.’” Russ further explained:

I took office on January 9 and began compiling a list of companies, banks, and other entities that act against Oklahoma’s interests because of their ESG stance. … It is my responsibility to ensure Oklahomans’ tax dollars will not be used to enrich organizations that act counter to our taxpayers’ interests and our values.

Getting back to Monday’s education debate, Democratic Sen. Carri Hicks said, “We’re asking taxpayers to fund a second school system when we haven’t funded the first.” She then explained, “Struggling schools mirror struggling communities. Oklahoma legislature has ignored the urgent need to address the 60 percent of Oklahoma’s children who live in poverty in our public schools.” Then she closed with a message that Treat should understand. “When we are looking at removing additional funding that could be invested in all of our kids’ futures — I think this is a misstep.”

And this brings back Treat’s call for remembering the lessons learned in the 1990s after Oklahoma City lost in the effort to attract 1,000 United Airlines jobs. During the deindustrialization spurred by the Reagan administration’s Supply Side Economics, Oklahoma received national and international attention for scandals ranging from the bank and saving and loans collapses; the Housing and Urban Development and County Commissioners scandals; and corruption in juvenile justice, prison, and county jails. Even the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce acknowledged that Oklahoma City “was a really destitute place to live.”

It took a two-pronged, collective response to turn Oklahoma City around. The first was bipartisan campaigns to raise taxes and rebuild abandoned neighborhoods; invest in parks, libraries, and sports and cultural institutions; and invest in public schools. As Sam Anderson of the New York Times Magazine explained:

After all of that sacrifice — the grind of municipal meetings and penny taxes and planning boards, the dust and noise and uncertainty of construction, the horror of 1995 — the little city in the middle of No Man’s Land has finally arrived on the world stage.

I would add in regard to the horror of the Murrah Building bombing on the second anniversary of the Waco tragedy, with the loss of 86 lives, nobody bought Timothy McVeigh’s justification for terrorism as a response to federal intervention in Waco.

Finally, I guess it’s is too much to ask of Treat et.al, but if we want to thrive in the 21stcentury, don’t we need a bipartisan rejection of Trump’s beginning his presidential campaign on the 30th anniversary of Waco with dog whistle calls for violence? Why can’t Republicans distance themselves from Trump’s supporters like the Proud Boys who cite Waco as justification for more violence? And why do they support a candidate who has “vowed retribution;” proclaimed, “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!;” and warned of “potential death & destruction” if he is prosecuted?

So, when Republican leaders like Treat are reluctant to speak out against ideology-driven policies that they know will fail, the damage from that timidity – though significant – is not the biggest problem. It’s their silence in the face of attacks on our democratic systems that should be the #1 concern.