Defeat of school voucher bill sets up campaign debates in governor, superintendent races
Gov. Kevin Stitt's push for a private school voucher plan could become a key wedge issue during this year’s gubernatorial campaign, and the likely Democratic nominee is hopeful it could help her gain some ground with rural voters.
“I think education is important to all communities, but especially in rural Oklahoma, they get it. Gov. Stitt’s voucher scheme is a rural school killer,” said Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma's state schools superintendent who is running for governor as a Democrat.
A plan to use tax dollars to fund private school tuition for some students was narrowly defeated last month in the state Senate, with opposition coming from Democrats and mostly rural lawmakers.
Leaders in the House had said even if the bill passed the Senate they would not give it a hearing, citing concerns among rural lawmakers.
Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, who authored the voucher bill, predicted the governor's race could be a referendum on his legislation.
“Leadership on the House side indicated ... that if the governor got reelected they would be supportive of school choice, and that's from the upper echelons of their leadership,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City.
House Speaker Charles McCall declined to respond to Treat’s comment.
Running on education platform
Given Hofmeister’s position as the state’s top school official, education was likely to dominate the debate between her and Stitt, whether the voucher bill passed or not.
While Stitt promised his administration would push Oklahoma into the "Top 10" in many categories, he's been citing some academic measures that put the state near the bottom, attempting to link Hofmeister to a failing public school system.
“Gov. Stitt will remain a strong advocate for improving teacher pay, expanding choice for students, and protecting parents’ voice in the education system," said Donelle Harder, Stitt's campaign spokeswoman. "Stitt is committed to working with Oklahoma’s elected leaders to deliver solutions that will bring us out of last place education rankings that have persisted for decades.”
The governor has blamed a bloated state Department of Education, which he ordered an audit of last year.
He has also vowed to sign any "school choice" legislation that crosses his desk, which could include the expansion of tax dollars for private school tuition, charter schools and policies that make student transfers between districts easier.
Stitt currently leads Hofmeister 44% to 30% among likely voters, according to a March poll from Amber Integrated.
The same poll showed 26% of likely voters viewed education as the most important issue, second only to jobs and the economy, which was a top priority for 33% of voters.
"This is part of why I'm running because we have to make education a real priority in the state," Hofmeister said.
In 2018, Stitt faced another Democrat who ran on an education platform.
Drew Edmondson promised to raise taxes to increase public school funding, a message that seemed to resonate in some urban and suburban communities, especially months after a statewide teacher walkout.
But Stitt won by 12 points, riding a wave of support in rural Oklahoma.
"Any time education is a central issue (in a race) Democrats can do better and I think (Hofmeister) is in the best position to be the public education candidate," said Joe Hartman, a partner with Skyfire Media, a Democratic consulting firm.
Stitt is a millionaire with a sizable war chest, but the voucher debate could also attract out-of-state funds behind his reelection race.
Club for Growth, a Washington, D.C., political group, funded television commercials and mailers last month in support of the voucher bill, and the organization has hinted it could get involved in this year’s election.
“While this effort was not successful, we are optimistic about the future and will hold both Democrats and RINO Republicans accountable for siding with self-interested, socialist union bosses,” said David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth.
The general election is still seven months away and a host of other issues will impact voters, including a Republican state’s referendum on a Democratically controlled federal government, which would likely bode well for Stitt in rural communities.
"People have short memories and voters will have to be reminded that (vouchers) were part of the governor's signature plan," Hartman said.
Race for superintendent
Beyond the governor's race, vouchers are already a key talking point in the race for state superintendent.
“It’s something I talk about a lot,” said Ryan Walters, Stitt’s secretary of education and a Republican candidate for state superintendent, referring to his support for a voucher system.
John Cox and April Grace, the other two announced Republican candidates for state superintendent, were against the voucher bill.
Jena Nelson, the only Democrat to announce her candidacy for state superintendent, is also opposed to private school vouchers.
"While I am pleased that our Oklahoma Legislature defeated the misguided and misleading voucher bill this session, I know it will be back again and again and again and with a vengeance," Nelson said at her campaign kickoff event last week. "But we know that this governor and his friends want to dismantle public education and turn our kids into dollar signs at the bottom of an account spreadsheet. Our kids are not for sale, and our schools are not for sale."