Vouchers, charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools are typically seen as the domain of uber-conservatives. So, when two Tulsa Democrats were mentioned not only favorably, but also admiringly at a recent gathering of die-hard school choice advocates, eyebrows should be raised and attention paid by parents, teachers and the public at large.
The politically volatile subject of school choice was the topic of a palaver held last week in downtown Tulsa in observation of what would have been the 95th birthday of Nobel prize-winning economist Dr. Milton Friedman.
The late Friedman, born July 31, 1912, is remembered for, among other ideas, his controversial proposal for a school voucher system that he said would revolutionize common education in America by enabling it to more greatly resemble a free market economy by letting parents choose where their education tax dollars are spent, thereby fostering competition among schools, public and private.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think-tank, hosted the brainstorming session about how to bring Friedman's vision to life, which included a couple of recent GOP gubernatorial candidates, a handful of Republican state lawmakers and several local business leaders.
As they discussed past successes and drawbacks and carved out strategies for the future, the names of two unlikely allies figured prominently in their discussion: state Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre and state Rep. Jabar Shumate.
The two Democrats from North Tulsa were not present at the predominantly right-leaning gathering, but received honorable mention for co-authoring and passing Senate Bill 661 in the latest session.
The new law creates greater opportunity for charter schools. Previously, charter schools had to be sponsored by a local school district, but Eason-McIntyre and Shumate's bill allows higher education institutes to sponsor them.
Shumate told UTW that he carried the legislation in response to a moratorium Tulsa Public Schools had placed on charter schools.
"In my opinion, TPS has a very hostile relationship with charter schools," he said.
"I cannot stand by and see people like Deborah Brown, who created one of the best charter schools in the city, fall by the wayside," Shumate said.
While the championing of charter schools is traditionally seen as a Republican cause, Shumate said, "I feel like politics should be about who you serve, not what group you belong to. My district has a lot of kids for whom education is their only lifeline."
As Shumate explained, that "lifeline" is all too tenuous within his district, which "has some of the worst public schools in the state," he said.
One such school, Shumate said, sports an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 165, compared to charter school with a score of 1500.
While he was fighting to get his bill passed, Shumate said the majority of his fellow Democrats opposed him at the urging of the school superintendents' lobby, who oppose charter schools because they divert resources from traditional public schools.
However, Shumate said tradition isn't as important as outcomes when it comes to the quality of education within his district.
"It shouldn't be tied to 'This is the way we've always done it'; if it's not getting the results we want, we've got to find a way to provide alternatives," he said.
While the issue of charter schools and other school choice proposals can generally be divided along party lines in Oklahoma, Shumate said that isn't the case elsewhere.
He pointed out that Pres. Bill Clinton supported charter schools, and the Democratic mayors of other large cities have been proponents of them as well.
"Oklahoma Democrats have issues against them because of the public education lobby, but when you look at big cities that look like my district, you'll find Democrats that are in favor of them," Shumate explained.
The reason, he said, is that charter schools kids from low-income families who live in underperforming school districts get a chance for a quality education that they wouldn't otherwise have.
During last week's OCPA gathering, several Republicans made the same observations.
"We've got the moral high ground on this," said OCPA trustee and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Bob Sullivan.
Sullivan's comments came during a discussion about how to overcome the considerable political opposition to charter schools and other school choice proposals.
Rep. Pam Peterson said "it's like pulling teeth" trying to pass legislation like SB 661 because "all the public school oppose us."
Brandon Dutcher, OCPA's vice president for policy, said he's encouraged by what progress has been made for increasing educational options in Oklahoma, such as the rise of homeschooling, private school scholarships and inter and intra-district choice, but the state is nowhere near the group's overall goal.
"It's better than it was 20-30 years ago, but we still don't have the Big Enchilada," he said.
The "Big Enchilada" would be a voucher system.
When asked if he would consider supporting such a proposal, Shumate said he is undecided.
"That's an area that I haven't done much research in, but I'm not opposed to it," he said.
He mentioned that vouchers have been found to be unconstitutional under some circumstances, such as public funding being used to support religious institutions, but "there are some plans that have worked," he said.
"In the situation of school choice, I won't turn a blind eye to anything, though," Shumate added.
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