Debates about school choice tend to bring out the best, and the worst, in politicians. An example of the worst would be the former chairman of the Colorado state House Education Committee, Rep. Mike Merrifield. In an email, he wrote, “There must be a special place in hell for these Privatizers, Charterizers and Voucherizers.” For emphasis, he added, “They deserve it!”
In Oklahoma, the public debate about school choice is usually civil, but opponents of charter schools and broader forms of choice are determined. This past legislative session, a proposal to allow more diverse charter school sponsorship was debated for hours, with black state Rep. Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City emerging as a leading foe.
On the other side stood Tulsa state Rep. Jabar Shumate, also a black Democrat. Shelton and Shumate had several exchanges on the merits, the former on the attack, the latter in respectful defense. Shelton opposed the bill through the end. But he also gave a gracious introduction to charter school students and patrons, many of them his constituents, seated in the state House gallery during the debate.
For his part, Shumate was quietly insistent on the merits of charter schools, saying they are “having a strong positive impact on the lives of students and families in the greater Tulsa community.” He told colleagues his constituents “tell me they want more and better options for their children’s education.”
Relatively quiet that day was state Rep. Anastasia Pittman, a black Oklahoma City Democrat whose own child attends an eastside charter school. She supported Shumate on a procedural vote early in the debate, but opposed final passage. Merits aside, the whole thing was interesting political theater.
In the end, a Senate version of the measure passed. One of the advocates in the upper chamber was Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre of Tulsa, also black and also a Democrat. She said charters represent “a breath of fresh air in Oklahoma communities where parents desire a stronger education for their children.”
Gov. Brad Henry signed the bill. Republican House Speaker Lance Cargill predicted, “The greatest civil rights and social justice issue of the 21st century will be access to a quality education.”
The alliance of black Democrats McIntyre and Shumate with white Republicans like Cargill and House Education Committee chairman Tad Jones of Claremore is not unique, but nonetheless notable. It is illustrative of a trend, a willingness among a new generation of black politicians to risk the ire of a lethargic education establishment.
Black politicians, and all politicians, have less to fear from the issue than they did 30 years ago. Today, support for school choice is consistently high among blacks. In various polls, it ranges from 57 percent to more than three-fourths of those surveyed.
In east Oklahoma City, charter advocate Tracy McDaniel runs the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) School, and is regularly praised for the equivalent of educational miracles in the lives of poor children. His performance with the poorest of the poor is one factor behind the surge for greater choice in Oklahoma. The KIPP concept is thriving across the nation, and many KIPP sites are charter schools.
KIPP isn’t the only Oklahoma City success story. In May, Western Village Academy, the state’s first charter school, was named one of the 53 National Charter Schools of the Year. There are now 4,000 tax-financed charter schools in America.
The political dam stemming the great river of school choice is eroding. In 2004, Congress enacted the D.C. voucher plan with the support of then-Mayor Anthony Williams. Like most of his constituents, Williams is black, but had the critical support of congressional leaders in both parties, including California Sen. Diane Feinstein and Connecticut’s brave Sen. Joe Lieberman. Then came Ohio’s voucher program and lively debates in other states. Indeed, as Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute recently pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, “Twenty-one school choice programs have been enacted across the nation over the past three years.”
Someone wise once said that nothing is inevitable, neither the rise and fall of great nations nor the dawn of another day. History’s tide could shift against educational choice. But that’s not likely. This is an idea whose time has come, one that transcends the transient issues dividing us, reaching to the heart of human aspiration and dignity.
When the history of this great movement for social justice and equal opportunity is written, there will be a special place of affirmation for those brave souls who in the face of shocking diatribes and real-world political opposition looked at the future and said, “Yes.”
A special place? Yes, they chose it and they deserve it—in heaven.
About the Author:
Pat McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is manager of The MidCity Advocate, a weekly newspaper serving the heart of Oklahoma City. A former state deputy commissioner of labor, he also taught at an inner-city public charter school serving at-risk youth and served as Capital Editor for Tulsa Today. This column was distributed by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (ocpathink.org).