Analysis Law and Policy

The State of Public Education in Oklahoma Is Dismal. Here’s How Betsy DeVos Made It Worse.

Ally Boguhn

In 2016, the DeVos-supported Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund invested in derailing the campaigns of candidates from the state’s “teachers caucus" who sought seats in both chambers of the state’s legislature and whose platforms prioritized public education—including raising educators’ pay.

Before she took the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, Betsy DeVos and her family sunk millions into candidates and causes supporting their conservative agenda. She also helmed an organization tied to 2016 attempts to derail Oklahoma’s teacher caucus candidates who supported public education reform in the state.

The Federation for Children Action Fund, which advocates for so-called school choice—including options for “traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, or virtual learning”—describes itself as “a political committee that supports and opposes state-level candidates for elected office.” DeVos chaired both the nonprofit and PAC arms of the organization until November 2016, when she resigned after her nomination to the Department of Education.

That same year, the organization’s PAC gave $180,000 to its Oklahoma-based affiliate, the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet Oklahoma Watch.

Before DeVos resigned, the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund had invested in derailing the campaigns of candidates from the state’s “teachers caucus,” a group of dozens of current and former teachers, administrators, and education advocates who sought seats in both chambers of the state’s legislature and whose platforms prioritized public education—including raising educators’ pay.

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By its own account, the PAC spent “just over $210,000 in Oklahoma legislative races” that year, including in primaries, runoffs, and general elections. According to Oklahoma Watch’s report, that money was spent in part on defeating eight current or former educators and their allies.

As the then-chairperson of the American Federation for Children, DeVos released a statement just after the November election applauding the organization’s efforts to elect what it deemed “champions of school choice.” The statement didn’t mention that many of the candidates the organization worked to defeat were educators and allied advocates.

Shawn Sheehan was one of the teachers caucus candidates whose race faced financial opposition from the organization and was cited in the press release accompanying DeVos’ statement. Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund spent $2,489 to support Sheehan’s opponent, Republican state Sen. Rob Standridge, Oklahoma Watch reported. Sheehan ultimately lost his bid as an Independent candidate by a significant margin after receiving 37.81 percent of votes, compared to Standridge’s 62.19 percent.

In an interview with Rewire.News, Sheehan said it didn’t surprise him that a group tied to DeVos had inserted itself into his race. “I’m not concerned about it and I’m not bothered by it, because I would expect that,” he said. “I would expect folks who have a vested interest in privatizing public education to naturally be on the other side of the fence when it comes to me and my conversations surrounding public education.”

However, when asked whether it concerned him that a group connected to Education Secretary DeVos spent money on his opposition’s campaign, Robert Founds, another defeated candidate from the teachers caucus whose race was highlighted in DeVos’ press release, said “very much so.”

“I feel like she is actively against the public education system and has done that for decades,” he continued.

The platforms of many of the defeated candidates spoke directly to some of the strain educators in Oklahoma have spent years facing. Sheehan, for example, suggested to NPR in 2016 that should he be elected “his first priority is funding education and raising teacher pay.” Others, like Democrat Donald Wentroth Jr., who lost a bid for the Oklahoma House of Representatives and whose opponent was also funded in part by the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, called for more investment in public education at large.

“Education needs to be viewed as an investment instead of an expense,” his campaign site said. “With a great public education system, crime and prison populations will decrease, teenage pregnancy will decrease, poverty will decrease, and the overall health and economy of communities and our state will improve.”

According to a report published last year by the National Education Association, the state ranks 49th in teacher pay. It also ranks near the bottom of the country in per-pupil spending, as Rewire.News has reported.

Sheehan, Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, ultimately left Oklahoma in part because of the issues educators there faced. He cited low salaries, ballooning classroom sizes, and general lack of resources as some of the issues that led him and his wife, who is also a teacher, to move to neighboring Texas after the birth of their daughter.

The situation is so dire that teachers in the state pledged to join the swelling ranks of educators nationwide striking in hopes of securing better wages. Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest teacher association, organized a teacher walkout on April 2 if the legislature did not meet their demands, which included a $6,000 raise for teachers in fiscal year 2019 and a $10,000 teacher pay increase over three years.

On Wednesday night, the Oklahoma State Senate approved a measure that would, according to the Associated Press, raise teacher pay in the state by an average of about $6,100. When the measure initially passed the state house, OEA said teachers still intended to walkout if its demands were not met. “Our ask is still our ask,” the organization tweeted in response to news of the bill’s approval in the state house.

On Thursday when the bill passed the state senate, the organization released another statement lauding the effort but adding that there was still work to be done. “While this is major progress, this investment alone will not undo a decade of neglect. Lawmakers have left funding on the table that could be used immediately to help Oklahoma students,” OEA President Alicia Priest said. “There is still work to do to get this legislature to invest more in our classrooms. That work will continue Monday when educators descend on the Capitol.”

Ed Allen, the president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, which represents 2,600 teachers in the state, said in a statement that the organization accepts the legislature’s pay raise package, but that “educators will rally on April 2 to put the legislature on notice that the fight continues” regardless. The organization tweeted that the majority of its members voted in favor of going through with the planned walkout.

When it came to the possible strike, Sheehan said that the state “could have avoided some of the issues, but not all” had more members of the caucus been elected. “I think we would still be engaged in this conversation about proper funding for public education and teacher salaries because we’re still combatting a climate of oil and gas,” he said.

Founds said he “absolutely” thought that some of the issues causing teachers to discuss striking could have been alleviated had more teacher caucus members been voted into office in 2016.

While speaking with Rewire.News, Sheehan noted that Monday’s looming walkout is not the first attempt by teachers in the state to make a difference in Oklahoma’s public education system, “not by a long shot.” He cited the 2016 push for teachers and their allies to run for office, a failed attempt that same year to raise taxes to better fund teacher salaries via ballot measure, and a nonprofit he formed to improve teacher recruitment and retention.

“We had done everything we knew how to do to make public education in Oklahoma better and we fell flat every time,” he said. “So I just hope that the country knows that this is not step one. We’re not starting with the strike. This is step 101, our last ditch effort to make things better for our children.”

While teacher pay and public school funding have played critical roles in prompting a possible strike, they are hardly the only issue at play when it comes to education—something underscored by the involvement of school choice proponents, DeVos-supported and otherwise, in Oklahoma’s state political races.

The “school choice” movement and groups like the one DeVos ran seek to expand alternatives to public schools such as private and charter schools. Such efforts enjoy support from many Republicans in the state of Oklahoma.

But as the Washington Post explained on a primer about the issues, “Critics [of school choice] argue that using public funds to support choice schools is undermining the traditional public system, which educates the majority of America’s school-age children, and that it is ultimately aimed at privatizing the most important civic institution in the country.”

As the New Republic’s Sarah Jones recently reported, Oklahoma is already home to two “school choice” programs. “Between its two school choice programs, the state voluntarily surrenders millions of dollars, in direct funds and in lost tax revenue, to private schools every year,” Jones wrote, noting that some of these private schools are religious and allowed to “discriminate against LGBT students, and they’re subject to almost no oversight.”

A push towards “school choice” in the state at large, including for access to charter schools, has seemingly helped exacerbate problems with public schools in the state. Speaking with Jones, Katherine Bishop, the vice president of OEA, noted that the “school choice movement has had an effect on our overall public school funding by taking funding away from our public schools.”

Founds platform during his campaign specifically called attention to some of these issues. According to his campaign’s website, he valued “protecting our public schools, the backbone of our state, from losing even more with the private school vouchers that my Republican counterparts are attempting to push through.”

Sheehan, however, did not see a push toward school choice as a motivating factor for the walkout next week. “I don’t know that school choice has actually been a huge issue in this conversation,” Sheehan told Rewire.News when asked about the issue in relation to the strike, instead pointing back to the state’s low teacher pay and poorly funded public education system. “Those issues certainly created an environment where the conversation for school choice can create momentum,” he continued.

Sheehan explained that for those who support privatization, “the goal is to paint the picture that public schools are failing … and they are accomplishing this mission in Oklahoma by defunding public education.”

“But thankfully, teachers are pushing back on it,” Sheehan noted. “Finally, teachers are standing up and saying, ‘Hey, we’re not going to sit by idly and watch this happen. We’re not going to watch you dismantle public education. We’re not going to continue to watch our colleagues move to surrounding states and thrive when we know we need to do better for our students, for our children.’”

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