- School choice has become a major issue in the 2022 Oklahoma statewide elections, with Democrats warning that vouchers would harm rural schools by siphoning money away from public education.
- “Rural schools are the heartbeat of their community, if the school closes so does the town,” Oklahoma educator April Grace said.
- “This excuse isn’t going to fly anymore, especially after parents have woken up after the past couple of years,” said Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children.
School choice, or state subsidies to give K-12 students alternatives to public education, has become a pillar of the Republican Party platform. But in one red state, the issue is proving a tough sell to a major Republican constituency: rural voters.
Polls show Oklahoma’s incumbent Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and his allied state superintendent candidate Ryan Walters, both school choice supporters, in a tight race with their Democratic opponents, who’ve brought the issue front and center. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joy Hofmeister and public school advocates argue that school choice legislation would harm rural public schools, often the only educational option outside the home in small communities, by siphoning money from state public education.
“We all know that [Stitt’s] voucher scheme is a rural school killer,” Hofmeister said in an Oct. 19 debate. “If you kill the school, you kill the community.”
Stitt backed SB 1647 in spring 2022, a bill that would have created Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts — or vouchers — to subsidize the cost of private or alternative education for K-12 students. It was narrowly defeated in the state Senate with bipartisan opposition, including from rural Republicans.
“Rural voters are highly concerned about SB1647 and the impact vouchers and loss of funding would have on rural schools,” April Grace, an Oklahoma educator who lost to Walters in the GOP primary, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
“Rural schools are the heartbeat of their community, if the school closes so does the town,” Grace continued. “Rural voters are not interested in the diversion of tax payer funds to private schools who lack the same level of transparency and accountability provided by all public schools. This is the leading conversation in this race and other state wide races. Rural voters reject this concept.”
Hofmeister, the current state superintendent and former Republican who switched to the Democratic Party to run against Stitt, and Walters’ opponent Jena Nelson, both oppose the idea, which supporters have vowed to bring back during the 2023 legislative session.
“We’re going to think outside the box and I’m going to stand with parents over big unions,” Stitt said during his debate with Hofmeister. Stitt said he has “put more money in education than any other governor in history” and that he will continue to “fund our rural schools.”
“You have promised that you will bring vouchers in if you are reelected,” Hofmeister countered. “You will see the dismantling of public schools. We will never be able to meet the workforce needs of business and industry. It is a no-go with me, and that is clear. I stand with rural Oklahoma.”
In an August poll of Oklahoma Republicans, 50% indicated “strong” support for school choice legislation while another 23.2% “somewhat” supported it. But as SB 1647 was being debated in March, a poll of Oklahomans from all parties found 61% opposed the idea of taxpayer dollars going toward private school tuition.
Oklahoma consistently ranks near the bottom of surveys of school quality and educational outcomes among the 50 states.
Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, told the DCNF that talking points about rural schools are “merely a convenient excuse for rural Republican legislators to side with the government school establishment and vote against a party platform issue.”
“This excuse isn’t going to fly anymore, especially after parents have woken up after the past couple of years,” DeAngelis said. “They will say that school choice doesn’t benefit rural voters because they don’t have any private schools in the area. But then, in the next breath, they will turn around and say that school choice will destroy the public schools in rural areas. Which one is it? If students truly don’t have any exit options, then your public schools won’t lose any money. The worst case scenario is that nothing changes.”
DeAngelis also said school choice legislation could eventually spur the creation of additional private schools in rural areas.
School choice advocates have scored major victories in other states with large rural populations. In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed HB 2853 in July 2022 to give private school and homeschool students up to $7,000 to subsidize their educational expenses.
Nearly 11,000 students had applied for the program as of September, the state department of education said.
An Oct. 17 poll showed Stitt and Hofmeister in a statistical dead heat in Oklahoma, with Walters up on Nelson by a 52% to 43% margin.
The Stitt, Hofmeister, Nelson and Walters campaigns did not respond to a request for comment from the DCNF.
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