The day the school-choice debate changed

In the current session of the state Legislature, Sen. James Williamson, a Tulsa Republican, is sponsoring a proposal called the New Hope Scholarship Act. The measure provides a tax credit for taxpayers who contribute to organizations that provide private-school scholarships for low-income children attending failing (the technical term is "needs improvement") schools in the state’s two largest cities. The fiscal impact of the tax credit would be $5 million, with a practical doubling effect (to $10 million) for students who would benefit.

In a March 13 state Senate debate on the bill, Sen. Jeff Rabon, the "Little Dixie" Democrat, said he would oppose the bill because "it strikes me as giving up." Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, a Durant Democrat, said he could not support Williamson’s proposal because of the "sacred mission" of public schools to educate every child. Gumm asserted support for the bill would "send up the white flag to abandon many for the benefit of a few."

Sen. Kenneth Corn, a Poteau Democrat, said, "I am concerned like Senator Gumm … that while we allow some children to escape the problems of a failed school-if that is in fact what we want to call it-the children who have parents [who] are motivated, who want to see their child succeed, those children will get out. But what about those children who don’t have parents who want to get up and make sure they go to a better school?" Sen. Connie Johnson, one of only two urban Democrats to speak against the measure, asked, "Why is it that we want to take some of the kids out of the public schools and essentially leave the rest on the sinking ship?"
The latter observation compels offering a counter-from a Democrat. A former correspondent for The Economist, Charles Wheelan, author of Naked Economics, wrote in an essay for OCPA a few years back: "If students-especially the ‘best’ students-will flock from public schools like rats from a sinking ship, then what makes this system so worth protecting?" That’s Wheelan’s question, not mine.
Right after Johnson’s comments, Judy Eason-McIntyre rose. In this debate, things will never be the same, at least in Oklahoma. She told colleagues, "This is not a difficult decision for me to make. This does not mean that I’m anti-public education. No one, no one has been more of a supporter for public education than I have. I have been a supporter of public education all my life."
A veteran of 16 years on the Tulsa public schools’ board of education, McIntyre said she had worked to get someone to "do something about these same schools that have gone on for years and years and years and nobody cared. Now, my critics are telling me that I’m trying to destroy public education! No, I’m not trying to destroy public education, I’m trying to get us to do what we need to do that nobody in a position of power has even said anything about."
Sometimes the obvious is a powerful argument, so McIntyre stated the obvious: "I know politics brings about strange bedfellows, but I’m not ashamed to be in bed on this idea. Because somebody … is finally trying to help do something different. Are they going to get something out of the deal? Yeah, that’s what politics is all about. … So these people who are willing to give some money to get a tax credit, if it means educating a kid then I’m for it because I’m tired of waiting."
Then, she got stronger: "This is the time for me, despite an election year. I believe in this strongly enough that if I don’t come back I am still going to continue to fight for this because we are better than this." She explained, "In front of our title it says ‘state.’ Mine doesn’t say ‘North Tulsa’ or ‘Osage County’ Senator, it doesn’t say ‘African-American,’ it says ‘state Senator.’ So, while we are concerned about those things in our district, as we should be, we’re also concerned about every child in the state of Oklahoma."
McIntyre wrapped up by saying to "fellow Democrats" that if "you’re interested in children, if you believe that every child should be educated," then you should support the New Hope scholarships. Then, she sat down. It was one of those relatively rare moments in politics, when a speech really does make a difference.
Sen. Tom Adelson, another Tulsa Democrat who had already said he would back the bill, told colleagues who were assailing Williamson’s bill: "All this lofty and empty rhetoric on my [Democratic] side, I’m embarrassed, because if we’re going to criticize we better have something ourselves." The closing back and forth of the discussion included a comment by Sen. Johnnie Crutchfield, a choice foe, who told Eason-McIntyre she’d just delivered "probably the best speech I’ve ever heard you give."
Democratic state Senator Earl Garrison, describing himself as "an old man from the country," said he wasn’t sure he could "add anything to this," but begged colleagues to support the bill. "If you’ve got a better way to do this, let’s do it. Let’s just don’t keep on playing politics with kids’ lives."
Republican state Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson, Williamson’s close ally on education issues, asked both sides of the aisle to remember the Senate is "the deliberative body." So, she deliberated: for 25 years, the Oklahoma Legislature has put $20 to $25 million a year into special programs aimed at educating poor kids in the state’s two big cities. (Do the math.) She argued that $5 million for an experimental scholarship program was not too much to ask.
Williamson closed the debate, and thanked Eason-McIntyre "for taking a courageous stand … that could very well get her beat in the next election. But her kids are more important to her than being in the state Senate. That is unbelievable for a politician to be so concerned … willing to risk the ire of the public educators over in Tulsa."
All over America, as Williamson pointed out, black Democrats are leading the fight on the school choice issue.
After remaining a study in restraint throughout the debate, Williamson got a bit emotional. He reflected on a New Testament story about Jesus, healing the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath Day, and then encountering criticism for the cure’s timing. As the Nazarene said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27, King James Version). Williamson argued, "Children weren’t made for the public schools; public schools were made for the children."
In every minute of debate, the inability of choice foes to argue real issues was manifest. The intellectual argument was over, even if the political debate will rage on and on.
The proposal passed, 30-18, as the dam broke. In the final roll call, one supporter was state Sen. Andrew Rice, a Democrat who represents the midtown Oklahoma City area where I live and work. Democrats Rice, Adelson, and Garrison were joined by Nancy Riley and Randy Bass, and by every Republican, in support of Eason-McIntyre’s position.
And all they are saying, is give choice a chance. The standard tactic, for decades, has been to accuse school-choice supporters of being closet racists, or haters of public education, or similar nonsense. In Oklahoma, school-choice opponents can no longer preempt argumentation and reasoning.
In Williamson, they faced the son of a public school teacher who was himself a public school teacher. In Eason-McIntyre, they faced a woman with 16 years tenure on a big city school board. In Adelson, they faced an unashamed liberal-who said he was ashamed of his party’s tactics in opposing choice. In Rice, they faced a man on a journey.
I’ve observed battles over school choice my entire life. I have always supported expanded options for children, parents, teachers, taxpayers, and donors. That’s my bias. Wisdom taught me, long ago, not to make confident declarations of inevitable victory for education reforms. In the near term, that’s probably still wise. 
But I’ll venture this modest bit of punditry: On March 13, 2008, the Oklahoma debate over school choice changed, forever. Defenders of the status quo will counterattack. They may even kill the Williamson-McIntyre bill (SB 2093) for this year, perhaps even by the time this essay is in print. We’ll see.
A gentle song from my youthful years keeps going through my head. Paraphrased, it goes like this: It’s been too long a-waiting. In the end, I know a change is gonna come. Oh, yes it will.

About the Author:
Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is an editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. He is the author of two books and the editor of seven, including “Law, Economics & Civil Justice: A Reform Agenda” (1994) and “Crime & Punishment in Modern America (1986). He is a regular contributor to Tulsa Today and a research fellow at OCPA.  A state-certified teacher, for two years he taught middle-school and high-school students at a public charter alternative school.

This editorial was first published April 4, 2008, Perspective Magazine (Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs).