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School choice at the heart of state ed board debate

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Democrats in the state Senate have revolted against the governor’s picks to the state Board of Education, a product of a mostly partisan divide over school choice policies.

Advocates for charter schools and school vouchers have praised some of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s picks to the board for their depth of education policy and their experience with nontraditional public schools.

But most Senate Democrats view the picks as a threat to traditional public education and in conflict with the mission of the state school board.

The clash came to a head last week when state Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, declined to shepherd two of Stitt’s board appointees through the Senate confirmation process — Jennifer Monies and Estella Hernandez.

With just nine of the 48 members in the Senate, Democrats alone can’t prevent the appointments, which require Senate confirmation.

School choice advocate Robert Ruiz said he’s optimistic about Stitt’s nominees to the board because of some of the appointees’ education policy experience and because the new members will add diversity to the seven-member board.

“I think that there could be more effective policies made just because of the involvement of the current appointees within educational policy,” said Ruiz, who is the associate director of Choice Matters.

Stitt gets to appoint six of the seven board members. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who is an elected official, serves as the board chair.

Stitt re-appointed Bill Flanagan, a certified public accountant and the mayor of Claremore. His other five picks are new to the board and bring a female majority to the board if they are confirmed by the Senate.

Ruiz believes the reconfigured board could lead to a more holistic approach to education that could lead to better outcomes for all students, especially those that come from low-income families.

Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso, said he’s not interested in appointing charter and private school advocates to the board.

Charter schools are public schools that operate with an increased amount of autonomy when it comes to hiring, schedules and other aspects of school management. They are still held to state academic standards and can be closed if performance ranks among the lowest in the state.

“To put multiple people on the state school board that have a background and an agenda in charter schools and vouchers and virtual schools, I think that’s just a fundamental disagreement that I have, and I think my community would have with what we expect out of the state school board,” he said.

Monies serves as senior director of public affairs for Saxum and previously worked as director of Oklahoma Achieves — an education initiative by the State Chamber.

Hernandez is a Realtor who previously served as vice chairwoman of the Oklahoma Republican Party and vice president of engagement for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think thank that supports vouchers, which allow students to use state education funding for private school tuition.

Hernandez and Monies did not comment for this story.

Stitt called Senate Democrats' opposition to some of his board nominees disappointing and a display of partisan politics.

"It just looks political to me," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd dismissed the assertion that political motivations drove opposition to Stitt's appointees. Senate Democrats have voted to confirm more than 90 percent of the governor's nominees, she said. Hicks' decision not to carry the nominees was based on her "extensive" interviews with both candidates, Floyd said.

The state’s largest teachers union — the Oklahoma Education Association — also has criticized some of Stitt’s appointees for being pro-voucher and charter school.

“Supporting vouchers is the antithesis of what public education is about,” OEA President Alicia Priest said. “Vouchers take away money from our public schools so if you are a supporter of moving to a privatized public school policy like vouchers, then that is very problematic for us.”

OCPA President Jonathan Small said Hernandez largely worked on the criminal justice reform and citizenship issues during her 18 months with the organization. He also criticized Democrats and the OEA for mounting campaigns against board appointees who are women, minorities or both. Neither Democrats nor OEA have cited gender nor ethnicity as the reasons they oppose Stitt's nominees.

Small also pointed out the Board of Education's limited power.

"The job of the state Board of Education is to administer the law put into place by lawmakers so the state board of education can’t deviate from state law," he said. "The state Board of Education can’t create new voucher programs, the state Board of Education can’t determine unilaterally that funding would go to charter schools."

Voucher polices are set by the state Legislature, which has approved a version for students with disabilities.

The state Board of Education does not have a direct role in setting charter school policy but can approve charter schools that appeal to the state.

The state Board of Education has already approved multiple charter schools that were rejected by local school districts.

While the school choice debate can break down along partisan lines in Oklahoma, it is not uncommon for Democrats in other parts of the country to be supportive of charter schools.

School voucher proposals have also faced scrutiny from many rural Republicans in the Legislature who view it has a threat to their school districts.

Monies and Hernandez are not the only nominees facing greater scrutiny and opposition from Democrats.

Senate Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the re-appointment of Flanagan to the board.

Democratic members of the Senate Education Committee also grilled Carlisha Williams Bradley, who is the executive director of Impact Tulsa, about her previous work as the executive director for Tulsa Legacy Charter Schools. They proceeded to vote against her in committee, and most opposed her confirmation on the floor of the Senate.

Both Flanagan and Williams Bradley were confirmed to the board in recent weeks.

Monies and Hernandez will get their first confirmation hearing this week in the Senate Education Committee. Stitt also appointed businessmen Brian Bobeck and Kurt Bollenbach, who also will have to go through the confirmation process.

In lieu of Hicks, Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat will carry the confirmations of Monies and Hernandez. He said Thursday he's confidant the Senate will approve both nominations.

Related Photos
<strong>Ruiz</strong>

Ruiz

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-ebba77b87be75188bc947bf158d36e8e.jpg" alt="Photo - Ruiz " title=" Ruiz "><figcaption> Ruiz </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-1c4e673fd020e2da9ebc7c15ba765dd1.jpg" alt="Photo - Priest " title=" Priest "><figcaption> Priest </figcaption></figure>
Carmen Forman

Carmen Forman covers the state Capitol and governor's office for The Oklahoman. A Norman native and graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she previously covered state politics in Virginia and Arizona before returning to Oklahoma. Read more ›

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