Culture and the Family
Ray Carter | April 7, 2021
School-choice supporter wins Senate race
In a race that included a strong focus on school choice, Republican candidate Jake Merrick defeated Democratic candidate Molly Ooten by a margin of nearly two to one in a special election for state Senate District 22.
The special election became necessary after former state Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, vacated the seat upon winning election to Congress.
Education was a major focus of both candidates.
On his campaign website, Merrick declared that parents should have the opportunity to place their child “in the learning environment that they feel is most effective for their child. In addition, funding should follow the child to ensure parents have a real opportunity to do what’s best for their child’s education.”
Merrick also said he would work to “increase the availability of funds via privately funded scholarships and provide tax incentives to private donors.”
The state has a tax-credit scholarship program in place that incentivizes private donations to scholarship-granting organizations that allow low-income children across Oklahoma to attend private schools. However, the current tax-credit cap on that program has limited its scope and demand for scholarships has exceeded supply. Efforts continue to expand the program.
During the campaign, an Ooten mailer attacked Merrick’s support for the tax-credit scholarship program by claiming he “wants to give money for public schools to private corporations.”
On her campaign website, Ooten also said she would “work against the unequal system that subsidizes private schools at the expense of families who rely on public education.”
Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest, whose organization has actively opposed school-choice programs that benefit low-income children, was also active in the race and publicly endorsed Ooten in a post that also attacked Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.
“This legislative session has been brutal for education seemingly for the fun of ‘disrupting the status quo’ (Treat). Voters MUST make some changes if we want to see a difference at the Legislature,” Priest wrote in a Facebook post. “That’s why I am personally endorsing Molly Ooten for SD22. She is an absolute breath of fresh air and supports public education! We desperately need her.”
Treat is the author of legislation that would shift more school-board elections to November general-election ballots, which he said would significantly increase voter participation and public input into local school issues. Because school-board elections are typically held in low-turnout elections at odd times of the year, critics argue they are often dominated by special interests more than parents.
During debate on that bill, Treat noted Oklahoma’s current education rankings are often among the worst in the nation and said, “I want to disrupt the status quo.”
Merrick said he would oppose additional school closures and “protect our right to school choice.” Merrick also voiced support on his campaign Facebook page for legislation allowing citizens to force recall elections for school board members.
Merrick received about 65 percent of the vote to Ooten’s 35-percent share.
The American Federation for Children, which supports educational choice, hailed Merrick’s victory in a release.
“The past year has made clear how important it is for parents to have a voice in education policies that impact their children,” said Jennifer Carter, Oklahoma Senior Advisor for the American Federation for Children. “Jake Merrick is an unabashed champion of parents, campaigning to make certain that the wishes of Oklahoma families will be front and center—and not sidelined—on decisions impacting their children’s education. AFC commends Merrick for taking on the status quo to provide a better future for all children.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.