John Thompson, historian and retired teacher, brings us up to date on the latest twists in the bizarro world of Oklahoma politics, where the most bizarro of all is the State Superintendent Ryan Walters (I think I could use that headline again and again, just changing the name of the state). John talks to Republicans in the legislature, and he finds that there are moderates who don’t agree with their leadership but keep a low profile and rein them in whenever they get too whacky.

He writes:

The 2023 Oklahoma legislative session, combined with the rightwing extremism of Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Ryan Walters, began as possibly the worst threat to public education in our state’s history. Following more than a decade of teach-to-test mandates and increased segregation by choice, the Covid pandemic, and a history of underfunding schools, education faced a combination of existential threats.

But, rightly or wrongly, my history of working Republicans tempered my pessimism; so I’ve been struggling to listen and evaluate whether the victories that came out of the final education bills were mostly band aids or whether the resistance to Gov. Stitt and Superintendent Walters could lead to a turning point.

Yes, the total increase for education came to $785 million, but one can only guess how much of those expenditures will be beneficial to students, and how much damage will be done. Worse, Oklahoma is likely to see an economic downturn, as $2 billion in federal Covid money runs out. Moreover, it seems unlikely that pro-education legislators will gain the power to reverse policies that fail. For instance, what happens (which seems increasingly likely) if $250 million per year in “tax credits” (vouchers) are institutionalized? And worse of all, what will be the longterm costs if the cruelty and lies by extremists are institutionalized?

Only five years ago, the Teacher Walkout led to an important increase in educators’ salaries in 2018 and 2019. And Republican leaders invested $150,000 to purge their party’s craziest haters. (But then, it would have been hard for me to believe that the xenophobic, Muslim-hating Sen. John Bennett would survive and become the Republican Party Chair.) And after listening to thousands of educators, Sen. Adam Pugh (R) started this year with bills proposing $541 million in new spending. They would raise average teacher pay to the middle of the pack of neighboring states, even though starting teacher pay would remain below $40,000. Pugh would fund maternal leave, and his bills didn’t even mention vouchers.

Previously, rural Oklahomans were so firmly opposed to school vouchers that it seemed impossible that local candidates would listen to “astro-turf” think tanks, funded by rightwing Billionaires Boys Clubs which insisted that candidates running for state office would have to support vouchers, marketed as “tax credits.” But, then, Republicans gained an overwhelming super-majority, where individual legislators’ had to obey each and every one of the leaderships’ orders.

The strangest of 2023’s non-negotiable demands were made by House Speaker Charles McCall who, almost certainly, was driven by his desire to be elected governor. He switched from opposing vouchers to demanding complete loyalty to “tax credits” for private schools. Almost certainly, his mandates backfired, unleashing chaos which allowed the more reasonable Senate Republicans to fight back and to win some victories.

Even so, McCall misleadingly claimed, “the Legislature will have invested more funding into public education in the past five years than in the previous 27 years combined.”  Moreover, Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, agreed that the bill is “really game changing for public education.”  He added, “Over the past six years, state leaders have put an additional $1.5 billion into funding public schools, a 59% increase.”

A more accurate evaluation was provided by Rep. John Waldron who twittered, “My initial assessment of the budget process this year: ‘Never has so much money been argued over for so long to benefit so few.’” And Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City said, “It is important to remember that we are talking about $600 million over three years that will not serve 95% of Oklahoma students,”

Actually, McCall and Hime inadvertently pointed to an historical fact that is essential to understanding why Oklahoma schools have gone from one crisis to the next. In the early 1990s, a comprehensive increase in school funding, HB 1017, “used a $560 million tax increase over five years to reduce class sizes, boost minimum teacher salaries, and fund statewide curriculum standards, testing, and early childhood programs.”

HB1017 launched a decade of progress, but it also produced a backlash, passing State Question 640, which required a super-majority to raise taxes. So, during the 21at century it’s been virtually impossible to maintain funding for salaries and other needs. Yes, we occasionally found the votes for a pay raise, but then real wages would stagnate. Worse, as a Republican legislator recently explained to me, we had no plan for fixing schools.

I would add that the only comprehensive plan that I recall was the first step towards full implementation of test-driven, choice-driven corporate reforms. They sought to use reward-and-punish mandates, and testing to provide the ammunition for charter-driven competition to undermine neighborhood schools and teachers’ autonomy. They used segregation by choice to supposedly recover from generations of Jim Crow. And during and after the Covid pandemic ordeal, anti-public education leaders like Gov. Stitt and Superintendent Walters’ sowed falsehoods and bitterness, while censoring class discussions regarding LGBTQ and Trans students’ rights; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI); and honest History lessons.

Even after increasing average wages to below average in the region, and wages of new teachers to almost $40,000 per year, (as assaults on teaching have spun out of control) we can only guess whether such increases will improve teacher retention and morale. For instance, how much bigger of a paycheck would it take to get educators to forget Walters’ charges that teacher unions are “terrorist organizations;” schools are “a breeding ground for liberal indoctrination,” and spreading pornography; and claiming:

The far left wants to turn kids against their families,  … They want to convince them that America has a racist, socialist history. Instead of allowing your kids to see the fundamental principles that guide this country. … What they want is your kids to hate America.

Similarly, on the financial side, the costs of these policies haven’t been fully estimated. As mentioned earlier, the costs of vouchers start out at $150 million per year, increasing to $250 million. On one hand, some hope that, real world, only the affluent who already send their kids to private schools will widely benefit from “tax credits,” thus keeping the price tag down. But what if we see a surge of lower cost, low- quality private schools that attract families making less than $75,000 per year, undermining the stability of large numbers of public schools?

Yes, one of the worst parts of the bill, the attempt to undermine the state’s funding formula, was defeated. The House’s bill would have only increased per student funding in urban schools by about $60- $70, when rural per capita spending increased by up to $750 (or more). Now, about $500 million will be distributed by Oklahoma’s much more fair funding formula, meaning that per student funding will be $1000 (which is far short of what our students need.)  Moreover, the demand for merit pay was beaten back. But, will the new $125 million Redbud Fund, combined with the successful voucher campaign, open the door to more survival-of-the-fittest attacks on urban and poor students?

Finally, during this year’s chaos, a “longtime education grant writer,” Terri Grissom, testified that Walters “lies” to legislators. Grissom said:

“He (Walters) said, ‘We have applied for millions and millions of grants since I took office.’ We have not applied for one single grant. That was a blatant lie,” she said. “When legislators said, ‘We want a list of those,’ he gave them a list of everything I did under (former Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s) leadership. Nothing was new.

“The new leadership team is not moving on anything. They won’t approve anything. They won’t sign contracts. No work is actually happening. When work shuts down, everything is in jeopardy.”

Some legislators are investigating the total costs of competitive grants that Walters hasn’t filed and/or mishandled. For instance the whistle-blower explained that Ryan Walters hasn’t spent “between $35 and $40 million of grant money,” and “the state could be on the hook to repay.”

Also, the legislature is now operating in a “concurrent session,” in order the override Stitt’s 20 vetoes, especially his effort to defund the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA), in order to punish legislators who didn’t support his education plan. 

Due to the lack of transparency, we can only guestimate the benefits and costs of the education bills. I intentionally avoided reaching conclusions until the end of the process. My best judgement is that I wish the adult Republicans had been more open in expressing concerns about the bills, but I acknowledge that that was probably impossible. We must not underestimate the value of their efforts to strip the most destructive parts from the process. Their wage and other funding increases may not be enough to reduce the damage to public education but, without them, its future would be worse. It’s unlikely that one year’s resistance could provide more than band aids. What matters is whether pro- or anti- public education advocates win the battles of the next few years.  

Since this post was submitted, a bill which gives grounds for optimism was passed. The Tulsa World reports:

“The State Department of Education shall not decline, refuse participation in, or choose not to apply for any federal grant funding that had been received by the Department prior to FY2023 without joint approval from the President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma State Senate and the Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives,” states Senate Bill 36x, which was approved 20-0 on the Senate side and 34-0 in the House.