February 3, 2023

Ben Felder: Behind the ‘grassroots’ movement for Oklahoma school vouchers championed by Ryan Walters

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Reporting for The Oklahoman, Ben Felder explains how the Oklahoma Education Reform Coalition that has pushed so hard for vouchers in the state is just one more astro-turf group, fake grass roots powered by money from Walton, Koch and DeVos organizations.

When a group of pro-school voucher lobbyists and political operatives met in November, ideas were floated on how to make their effort appear more “grassroots.”

Getting parents of children with dyslexia and Down syndrome to promote school vouchers could be a compelling story, some suggested.

“Decoding Dyslexia is not a friendly organization but specific dyslexic parents are,” one person said, according to notes from the meeting.

A few weeks later, the group discussed potential taglines lawmakers could use in an effort to turn the attention away from the fact that private schools stood to benefit financially. School vouchers “put parents in charge” was promising, the group thought.

They’ve been working hard at this.

Over the last several months, a group calling itself the “Oklahoma Education Reform Coalition” has held an out-of-state planning retreat along with monthly meetings, developed a detailed communications strategy, and worked to gain support among various parent support groups, all in the hopes of getting lawmakers to allow private schools to receive tax dollars, according to dozens of emails, meeting notes and presentation slides obtained by The Oklahoman.

The work involves many familiar groups in the education privatization world.

Coordinating the effort is Saxum, an Oklahoma City-based public relations firm with multiple state contracts, Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, a nonprofit recently managed by State Supt. Ryan Walters, and the Walton Family Foundation, a pro-school choice organization funded by the founding family of Walmart.

Attending meetings and included on strategy email chains are representatives from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Americans for Prosperity, The Heritage Foundation, Yes. Every Kid, and the American Federation for Children, all conservative political organizations that promote school voucher policies and lobby at the state Capitol.

Americans for Prosperity and Yes Every Kid are two Koch groups (with offices in the same building). The American Federation for Children is largely supported by the DeVos family.

The emails unveiling these shenanigans also include Brandon Tatum, Governor Kevin Stitt’s chief of staff.

The push for voucher push in Oklahoma is anything but a grass roots movement. It’s a well-funded, carefully coordinated political operation. Read the full piece here. 


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