Ray Carter, Center for Independent Journalism
The pandemic-related decision to provide online-only instruction at 7.5 percent of Oklahoma school districts, rather than in-class teaching, has generated a fierce backlash from parents. Many families are demanding greater school choice, ranging from the simple opportunity to choose either in-person or virtual education to endorsing the use of tax dollars for private-school options.
That parental pressure has led some districts to yield and reopen. A top education leader in the Oklahoma House of Representatives thinks that pressure is also changing the political dynamic on school choice issues.
“I think that there certainly is a change in the landscape of things,” said Rep. Rhonda Baker, a Yukon Republican and former teacher who chairs the House Common Education Committee. “I think that parents, more now than ever, want choices for their kids and they want educational outcomes to improve. I do think there is a shift.” (See the ‘protocols’ document here.
A statewide survey of active likely Oklahoma voters conducted from August 10 to 13 showed 54 percent of voters “somewhat” or “strongly” support allowing parents to use a share of the state funding allotted for a child’s education to pay for private school tuition or other education options.
An even larger share — 63 percent — support using tax dollars for private-school tuition when “a local school district decides not to hold classes in person.” The poll was commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and conducted by Cor Strategies.
For many families, the lack of in-person instruction has created significant financial hardship and the virtual options offered by many districts have been criticized as inadequate at best and destructive at worst.
On the “Reopen Our Schools (Yukon)” Facebook page, parent Amy Jewel Heinken wrote earlier this month of her family’s challenges.
“I love Yukon schools,” Heinken wrote. “But am I the only parent who this has become a complete disaster for?”
Heinken said three of her four children are school-age and she is working full-time while also attending school herself.
“I can’t apologize that I have to work to support them and my son has to attend daycare and do his Zoom meetings there,” Heinken said.
She said her children were “not learning” under the online-only model and were “miserable.”
A survey of Yukon parents conducted prior to the start of the school year showed nearly 57 percent preferred in-person instruction.
Yielding to demand from parents, the Yukon school board recently voted to reopen the district for in-person instruction starting Sept. 16 for pre-K through third-grade students and Sept. 21 for all other students.
As the Yukon school board meeting was streamed live on Facebook, many parents simultaneously posted messages voicing their frustration with the online-only model.
Kelly West Blake posted, “All students deserve some normalcy, not just athletes.”
“Nobody in my home stays home,” posted parent Rachel Lynn, “we are both working parents.”
The story is much the same in other districts that are not offering full-time in-person instruction.
An online petition launched by Stillwater parent Taurean DuHart states that “having no in-person option simply does not provide a fair and equitable education. The learning loss will be so deep many students will never recover. This will affect these students for years to come.”
One petition signer, Tawni Hooten, noted over 70 percent of Stillwater families who completed a survey preferred in-person classes.
“We support our school district,” DuHart told the Stillwater school board members during that group’s Sept. 8 online meeting. “But if we can’t get in the classroom and our kids can’t get quality education, the same kids who stand behind our teachers will want vouchers because we will need our tax dollars to pay for private education.”
Nearly 1,600 individuals had signed the Stillwater petition as of Sept. 9.
Officials at the Owasso school district yielded to public outcry and recently announced the school will reopen for in-person instruction on Sept. 17. Parents were seeking to force recall elections for members of the school board.
In the Tulsa area, officials at the Jenks Public School district have similarly decided to reopen for in-person instruction starting Sept. 10. Jenny Street, a parent in the Deer Creek school district, has launched an online petition calling for in-person instruction that generated over 800 signatures as of Sept. 9.
Parents in Edmond have raised similar concerns, launching a petition calling for the resumption of in-person instruction for five days a week. One Edmond-petition signer, Lauren Grande, wrote, “There are hundreds of students with working parents that are being left at home, three days a week, to try and learn time management, on-line school, without the help of an adult until after parents return from work. This is truly going to put students behind …”
Another parent, Rachel Rutherford, wrote, “My children deserve a good education for which my tax dollars pay. Virtual and two days of in school instruction will not provide the learning tools to succeed in future grades and college.”
Owasso parent Dana Walsh said the challenges created by her district’s online-only service were not as severe for her family as others, “but only because we already had technology in our home to supplement/replace the school-provided items that didn’t work” and because her son is old enough she didn’t have to pay for daycare or endure “large chunks of missed work.”
Even so, she is among the parents who believe they should have greater school choice via control of education tax dollars.
“I would love to send my eighth grader to a private school,” Walsh said.
Not all lawmakers appear receptive to those parents’ wishes. In the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, legislation was filed to increase the size of the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which provides tax breaks to those who donate to scholarship-granting organizations. The program has helped many low-income students attend private schools that remained open for in-person instruction when nearby schools closed.
Gov. Kevin Stitt and Senate Republican leaders supported the program’s expansion, and the legislation cleared the Senate. But the bill was never granted a floor hearing by House Republican leaders.
Rep. John Talley, R-Stillwater, said he remains opposed.
“Has my position changed?” Talley said. “No.”
But he acknowledged his constituents are demanding greater school choice, particularly when it comes to in-person instruction.
“They want to be in school, whether it be two days a week, three days a week, every other day, whatever, they want to be in school,” Talley said. “That’s what I’m hearing.”
Other lawmakers who represent districts that started the school year with no option for in-person instruction did not respond to requests for comment, such as Rep. Mark Vancuren, a Republican who represents Owasso, and Rep. Lonnie Sims, a Republican whose district includes both Jenks and Tulsa.
Baker said she is not sure how she would vote on the tax-credit scholarship bill today, but indicated one of her concerns is that the bill was too narrowly tailored. Baker said she prefers something “more broad that’s going to help all children.”
“I don’t care who delivers it,” Baker said, referring to education. “I just want it to be fair for all kids, that all kids can achieve a better outcome.”
In the past, she said proposals to provide full-blown vouchers to a broad share of students struggled to gain political traction.
“COVID has changed it,” Baker said. “I mean, the landscape is changing. I don’t know if that is something that will gain traction. I have a feeling if the schools do not play their cards right and make sure that they’re selling the message to parents that these children and their education is important, then that will gain traction.”
When she was first elected, Baker said Oklahoma was “losing really dynamic teachers” and she felt that challenge needed to be immediately addressed. Since then, lawmakers have provided an average pay increase of more than $7,000 apiece to Oklahoma teachers.
That allows lawmakers to now focus on issues that extend beyond teacher supply, she said. And parental demand for a greater array of education options could influence that debate.
“Parents are more engaged, and I will say I’m excited about that because that’s what we’ve needed,” Baker said. “Let’s see. I think the dynamics are changing.”
NOTE: Ray Carter is director of the Center for Independent Journalism, based at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where this news story first appeared: Carter’s reporting regularly appears, with permission in The City Sentinel newspaper, both print and online (City-Sentinel.com), and on the CapitolBeatOK.com website.