As most observers of Oklahoma legislative politics know, in cases when only a handful of Democrats support controversial bills being promoted by the Republican majority, it’s usually the more conservative members of the caucus representing rural districts who buck party lines. But on SB 1111, a bill authored by Sen. Clark Jolley that moves various education reporting and accountability functions from the State Department of Education to the Office of Accountability based with the Regents for Higher Education, it was four mostly liberal Democrats (Anastasia Pittman, Rebecca Hamilton, Seneca Scott, and Jabar Shumate), representing some of the lowest-income urban districts in the state, who joined with 54 of 59 Republicans to pass the bill in the House and send it to Governor Brad Henry. Two of the Democrats supporting SB 1111 in the House (Pittman and Shumate), along with one of the two Democratic supporters of the measure in the Senate (Judy Eason-McIntyre), are among the five African-American Democrats in the Legislature (the other two African-American Democratic legislators, Rep. Mike Shelton and Sen. Connie Johnson, opposed the measure).
The vote on SB 1111 suggests that on educational issues, old assumptions and old alliances seem to be breaking down. The bill represents at least the third time in three years that Oklahoma Democrats representing low-income urban districts have opposed their party leadership and most of the organized educational interest organizations on education bills. In 2007, it was HB 1589, a bill to expand sponsorships of charter schools that revealed the beginning of a schism. That bill was passed and signed by Governor Henry. Last year, an especially nasty fight surrounded SB 2093, a private school voucher bill that proposed giving a 50 percent tax credit to individuals, up to almost $5,000, who donate to a fund providing private school scholarships. The bill was defeated in the House, with only two Democrats – Jabar Shumate of North Tulsa and Rebecca Hamilton of South Oklahoma City – supporting it (18 Republicans also voted against). This year again saw bills to expand charter school sponsorship and private tax credits for private school scholarships, but much of the energy has focused on Sen. Jolley’s bill, labeled the Education Accountability Act. The bill, which is being promoted heavily by the state Chamber of Commerce and Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition over the vigorous opposition of the State Department of Education, is based on the conviction that the public school system is not providing adequate evaluation and reporting of student performance. SB 1111 now awaits action by the Governor, who appears likely to veto the measure.
So what’s going on here? At its essence, these battles represent a profound frustration and disappointment in the poor performance of public schools in low-income, disproportionately-minority urban neighborhoods and a belief that poor families deserve a wider array of choices for their children. In Oklahoma and around the country, African-American political and civic leaders, along with some liberal education reform advocates, have become vocal supporters of expanding the choices available to low-income parents through charter schools, and in some cases, private school vouchers. Last week, when an Oklahoma County District Court dismissed a challenge of Oklahoma’s charter school law, Rep. Shumate issued a press release that declared:
Today’s ruling is a victory for families in Tulsa and a loss for bureaucrats who would condemn the poor to a substandard education because of the circumstances of their birth. I believe education is the civil rights struggle of 21st Century America and have actively supported the efforts of charter schools, which are proving that all children can learn and achieve, regardless of poverty or family background. If the Tulsa schools had succeeded in their lawsuit, they would have effectively turned their back on the neediest children in our state.
This movement for expanded choice has run up against strong opposition from public school interests, including the school boards, superintendents, teachers and the State Department of Education. The votes on SB 1111 suggests that a high level of distrust has developed between the public school system and the dissident Democrats.
Interestingly, none of the urban Democrats who have supported school choice bills and the Education Accountability Act have supported SB 834, the controversial effort of Senate Republicans to give public schools greater flexibility by easing an assortment of school mandates and making it easier to dismiss teachers. Public school boards and Superintendents have strongly supported SB 834, with some arguing that public schools should be allowed to operate more like charter schools. For Rep. Shumate, however, allowing whole districts to become “like charter schools” actually diminishes choice. When I asked him to explain his position on SB 834, he asserted that “best practices have proven that charter schools function best because families that attend and teachers that work in those environments had the option to choose it as an alternative. Forcing teachers and famiies into a deregulated system is counterproductive to what makes charter schools unique – the element of choice.”
Not too long ago, the education debate at the Capitol did not extend to much more than funding, teacher pay and class sizes. As the debate has broadened to include such issues as charter schools, testing, merit pay and tenure, new perspectives, new alliances, and new conflicts have emerged.
OK Policy looks forward to being a voice in these debates, and would love to hear your points of view on SB 1111 and other education issues facing the state.