John Thompson: Critical Oklahoma Elections
John Thompson reports on some critical choices that will affect the future of public education in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma fight to defend our democracy, and draw upon our strengths to get our system on track, is being led by seven dynamic women. Since the reelections of the two Republican women are virtually assured, this overview will focus on the unexpected ways that the five Democrats have become models of how we can defeat MAGA-ism and build a 21st century state that our families deserve.
The first is State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who was endorsed by the Network for Public Education (NPE), which cited her rescue of public schools from corporate school reforms, and who laid a foundation for science-based holistic, humane programs, such as early education, reading for comprehension, and mental health services.
Hofmeister says, “I’m running as an Oklahoman … [who] values “common sense, respect for one another.” She has listened to Oklahomans who are tired of the chaos and the divisiveness sown by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who “is a reckless governor … burning bridges, burning relationships.” For instance, Hofmeister explains that Stitt is committed to vouchers that are “rural school killers.” Without planning and often without respecting legal guidelines, he has rushed a privatization agenda that has been incredibly destructive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stitt has “churned through four state epidemiologists” and refused to listen to experts.
Stitt’s deadliest debacle was the undermining public health responses to the COVID pandemic, ranging from anti-masking to encouraging doubt about vaccinations. In October 2020, he spread havoc by moving the State Health Laboratory from Oklahoma City to Stillwater; even now the lab isn’t completely operational. The Commonwealth Fund ranked Oklahoma 50th in the pandemic responses and among the highest in death rates. Stitt replied, “Nobody trusts the death rate at all … and the estimate of 15,000 to 17,000 deaths is untrue.”
Three weeks ago, Stitt supposedly illustrated his commitment to students by rushing down school halls with a semi-automatic rifle. Two weeks ago, the latest controversy is about Stitt, who lives in a $2.7 million mansion and often rides helicopters to the Capitol, having a $6 million dollar secret plan for a new mansion.
Second, Stitt appointed Ryan Walters as the head of the Education Department, and now Walters running against former Teacher of the Year Jena Nelson for State Superintendent. Walters followed Stitt in pushing privatization plans of dubious legality. He remained the Executive Director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, an Oklahoma education non-profit funded by Charles Koch and the Walton Family Foundation. And Walters was paid approximately “$120,000 a year by Every Kid Counts Oklahoma compared to his state salary of $40,000.” Federal auditors are investigating the distribution of COVID relief money in the Bridge the Gap program that was “implemented with few safeguards to prevent fraud or abuse.”
Stitt defended Walters, “Secretary Walters is doing a great job fighting for parents’ right to be in charge of their child’s education and advocating for funding students, not government-controlled systems.”
Since then, Walters has grabbed headlines while seeking to decertify a teacher who posted a QR code for the Brooklyn Library. He claimed, “There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom.”
And as retired Superintendent Craig McVay explains, Stitt’s and Walters’ voucher plan “has nothing to do with school choice. This is about rewarding their donors who want to kill public education.”
Moreover, Walters now says he has begun “phasing away” the acceptance federal funding that makes up nearly 10% of the total current revenue for Oklahoma school districts, and nearly 1/3 of the budget of some rural schools.
Jena Nelson, who also was endorsed by the NPE, comes from rural Oklahoma where she was inspired by another Teacher of the Year and “discovered a new purpose in school” by taking drama, speech and debate classes. These programs “took Nelson and other Broken Bow students across the state for competitions.” She earned the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy’s Lauren Choate Resilience Award, and as the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year she learned from some of the nation’s top education experts. Nelson’s campaign stresses career readiness and trauma awareness in schools. She also spoke on the need for a “revolution of morale” among educators in the state.
Third, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Madison Horn, grew up in an area known as “the early death capital of the world.” She “worked her way from a place where 68% of women are unemployed” to become a global cybersecurity expert. In 2018, Horn’s hometown, Stilwell, became known for its “Third World level” of life expectancy. Stillwell and the area around it have a life expectancy of 56 years. Horn draws upon her experience growing up in such a challenging environment in order to push for compassionate investments. And her “scrappy, resourceful approach” leads to better communication with the people in Trumpland who are suffering so much.
Horn’s opponent, Sen. James Lankford, has taken a typical Mitch McConnell approach to Trumpism. During the Jan. 6 insurrection, he voted to certify the 2020 election, promising “to set a peaceful example.” But Lankford did not have the courage to resist Trump’s demands and now pretends to be full MAGA.
Fourth, voters seem to be belatedly learning about the election that is as important as the Senate or Governor’s races – the Oklahoma County District Attorney race. It had been assumed that Kevin Calvey, who may be the most reckless of the MAGA candidates, would win by default. Few seemed to be concerned that “the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is still looking into allegations against Calvey” about campaign expenditures. Calvey claims that “the OSBI told him ‘they are done with their investigation.’” But, when asked if the investigation was over, an OSBI spokeswoman said, ‘Nope.’”
Calvey previously said, “If I were not a Christian, and didn’t have a prohibition against suicide, I’d walk across the street and douse myself in gasoline and set myself on fire!” He would do so in protest against “our state Supreme Court [which] has killed every law going before it that is designed to protect women and babies from the predatory abortion industry.”
Now, Calvey – without evidence or a rational explanation – pretends that his highly respected opponent, Vicki Behenna, is complicit in the disappearance and possible murder of two people.
Behenna, however, has demonstrated her skills when investigating the internationally disastrous 1980s Penn Sq. Bank scandal, and prosecuting Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Oklahoma City Murrah Building. Now, she is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
Fifth, I’m mostly neglecting the long respected Republican State Auditor Cindy Byrd, whose latest high-profile investigation of the notorious EPIC Charter Schools led to felony indictments of its two founders. She won the primary, thus the election, despite a flood of “Dark Money” against her, that was likely related to EPIC.