The past week has been a whirlwind. Besides spending time in three different states, keeping tabs on my school’s run to a state championship in basketball, and surviving the slow crawl to spring break, I struggled to keep my blood pressure in check while things unfolded at the capitol concerning vouchers.
This week, the voucher wolves were on the hunt with gusto. Not one, but TWO separate pieces of legislation (one in the house and one in the senate) had cleared committee and were placed on the agenda in their respective houses for a vote. The deadline to pass legislation out of its house of origin was Thursday, March 10th, and the authors of the legislation pulled out all the stops trying to get these bills passed.
Monday night, we received word that SB609 and HB2949 were placed on the floor agendas for the following day. Almost simultaneously, we began seeing notifications on social media that robo-calls were being made to residents in certain areas with a message from the governor asking people to contact their legislators in support of Education Savings Accounts/VOUCHERS. In previous weeks, sleek mailers were sent out around the state calling on people to support ESA’s. These efforts were paid for by organizations that use “school choice” rhetoric to further their agenda of privatizing public education—sending tax dollars to private institutions without accountability. Proponents even call themselves a grass roots movement, despite being backed by big money.
On Tuesday, the real grassroots movement began to flourish. Parents began calling, writing, and emailing their legislators, but not with messages of support. Incensed by the messages from school officials around the state outlining the drastic measures being taken to cut costs due to revenue shortfalls, people spoke up and spoke out against vouchers. The message was clear: how can you possibly consider robbing our kids of more money at a time when we’re first in the nation for cuts to education? How can you possibly entertain the thought of picking the pockets of our public schools to finance private school tuition when our school leaders are debating whether or not they can afford services we once considered essential, like transportation. How can you possibly consider vouchers when districts all over the state are going to 4-day weeks, or ending the school year early to offset devastating mid-year cuts to education?
Neither SB609 nor HB2949 came to a vote on Tuesday. We were cautiously optimistic. More robo-calls went out that night, this time targeting districts where Republican legislators planned to vote “NO”. Neither came to a vote on Wednesday. Perfectly timed, our State Superintendent, Joy Hoffmeister, released the fiscal impact for public schools that would result from the implementation of vouchers. On Thursday, we heard rumors that the authors were working deals in caucus to whip votes for the measures. It was clear the votes were not there to pass the measures and proponents were trying everything in an eleventh hour attempt to win votes.
During these three days, I was in Kansas City at the Southwest American Choral Directors Association Conference. In addition to attending some wonderful workshops and reading sessions, I had the pleasure of listening to some amazing concerts. Several groups were from Texas, where teacher pay and per pupil spending are considerably higher than Oklahoma. Perusing their programs, I noticed their beautiful facilities, the size of their programs, and the number of certified faculty members and accompanists they could afford to hire even in smaller districts. In light of the battle we are fighting for public education, I began to wonder if I’m like those people on the Titanic who failed to get into the first half-empty lifeboats because they insisted the ship wasn’t sinking.
On Thursday afternoon, news came that fortified my efforts to stay and fight the good fight in Oklahoma.
Neither voucher bill would be heard in their respective houses. Two things have been swirling around in my brain after considering the ups and downs of this battle:
- Parents and community members still have the power to move the needle when it comes to education reform. In a state with a Republican governor, a Republican State Superintendent, and a large Republican majority in both the Senate and the House, Republican measures for vouchers could not be passed. This tells me some legislators still listen to their constituents. Some legislators know they work for us. We’re in a presidential election year, and I hear people justify their lack of involvement with the lament, “my vote/voice doesn’t matter.” It matters. And I would argue your voice and your vote matter most
- The battle is far from over. Proponents of vouchers have been vocal about the fact they are not giving up, despite the outcry from citizens that these measures be laid to rest. This legislation can still resurrect as an amendment to a bill that has already cleared its house of origin. The House Speaker (Hickman), a staunch supporter of vouchers, can introduce new legislation at any time. There is a rumor that they are waiting until the candidacy filing period (April 13th-15th) to instigate another push for vouchers in Oklahoma. If new candidates don’t come forward to challenge the status quo, some legislators may be persuaded to toe the party line. The good news is, a few already have, including an opponent for Jason Nelson, the author of HB2949. Kelly Meredith announced her candidacy this week and plans to kick off her campaign tomorrow night (Tuesday, March 15th).
To sum up…KEEP THE PRESSURE ON. And encourage others around you to get involved. Keep the conversations with your legislators open, and hold them accountable with your vote in June primaries and November elections. Finally, if you or somebody you know are ready to see a change at the capitol, consider running for office.
Well done, friends. Keep vigil. Remain alert. Stay the course.