Independent Journalist

A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. A state-certified schoolteacher in 10 subject areas, he is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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For those (like me) who obsess over the advancement of varied educational choice programs, the November election had some things old, including massive union spending against pro-educational-choice candidates, and in favor of those defending the status quo. But the election also brought some things relatively new, notably including large independent expenditures on both sides of choice and other education policy issues.

Nationally, in efforts to elect union allies and to defeat supporters of school choice, teachers’ unions spent more than $100 million, Allysia Finley of The Wall Street Journal reported (“Teachers Unions Flunked Their Midterms”). And yet “a torrent of negative union ads couldn’t hold back education reformers, who won almost across the board.”

Here in Oklahoma, I’ve already reported on several school choice victories this year. But let’s turn our attention to the race which was dubbed “November’s most important election” by the Oklahoma Education Association, an influential school-employee labor union.

It wasn’t the governor’s race. It wasn’t the race for state superintendent. Perhaps surprisingly, “November’s most important election” was the election to determine who would represent District 87 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. The incumbent, state Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City), is viewed by the OEA as the state’s “worst public education legislator.” They made his defeat their top priority of 2014.

The race had two superb candidates this year, one from each party. An effective incumbent, the all-but-sainted Rep. Nelson sought a fourth term at the Capitol. Opposing Nelson was Collin Walke, an appealing and likeable liberal Democrat whose underlying philosophy fits the demographic emerging in central Oklahoma City.

Except for one thing. Even in its liberal precincts, Oklahoma City is increasingly supportive of educational choice — ranging all the way from public charter schools to Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships and on to full-scale programs such as Arizona-style Education Savings Accounts.

Early on, Walke tied himself to the core of the public school establishment, including the OEA, in opposition to choice.

To be sure, the OEA was not the only high-powered group offended by Rep. Nelson's common-sense and Oklahoma-based views on education policy. Common Core supporters came after Nelson as well. I can’t make a definitive conclusion about spending in the race until all the post-election reports are filed (see my upcoming reporting on CapitolBeatOK.com), but in terms of dollars and cents raised and spent by the candidates themselves, it was an expensive race. And, with each hopeful deploying more than $100,000, Walke apparently had an advantage in total resources.

Nelson benefited from underlying pro-educational-choice sentiment in Oklahoma City, as well as spending across the state from the Oklahoma Federation for Children. He asserted a robust conservatism, including his stands in favor of capital punishment (Walke was a former director of the state’s leading anti-death-penalty group), opposition to abortion on demand and, to be sure, school choice.

The latter issue helped offset any confusion about his merits in the minds of voters.

Nelson garnered 4,406 votes, or 53.1 percent. Walke made a good showing for a first-time candidate (3,887 supporters, or 46.9 percent), but was on the wrong side of the school choice debate.

After all the shouting and spending was over, Nelson’s victory margin was nearly identical to the average he has garnered across four general elections — 52.2 percent.

“The attack mailers accused me of diverting money from public schools, yet they offered no example of how we supposedly advocated that. I campaigned openly in favor the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships and the other school choice measures I have backed,” Nelson told me.

“Throughout the campaign, I continued to see the steady shift toward support for school choice. I was gratified to encounter [in door-knocking walks] those who were otherwise liberal who believe it is an important policy goal to continue advancing for school choice. This was gratifying to see after all of our work on this.”

“Many tried to make this race a referendum on education and the many reforms I have been proud to support in recent years, like the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program for children with special needs,” Nelson wrote on his blog. “I think they were right.”

“This victory proves that putting people over partisan politics works. It’s not about protecting an elite class or the education establishment — it’s about doing the right thing for individual families, like that of Diane Brumley, who went above and beyond to tell her story of how the LNH scholarship changed her family’s life.”

The historian and political scientist in me cautions that every election is the result of particular elements within any given district or state. Nonetheless, Nelson’s victory falls easily within the broader context of a national surge in favor of school choice — and against those heavy-handed efforts by unions to punish choice advocates (as the OEA attempted, unsuccessfully, to do to state Sen. Jabar Shumate).

In an editorial following Nelson’s victory, the state’s largest newspaper recommended that other Republicans take note. “Nelson supports school choice, charter schools and greater parental control. He authored legislation to create education savings accounts that allow parents to use state dollars for a child’s tutoring or private schools. That such an agenda can win in a truly competitive district shows school choice and parental empowerment are winning issues. Statewide, several pro-school choice candidates from both parties won legislative races.”

Indeed, Nelson says school choice will be several votes stronger in the 2015 legislative session than in the 2014 deliberations. What is particularly encouraging to me, in Nelson’s words, is that the net pickup includes “Democrats who will support school choice. In the end, it was encouraging to win when I'd been named the number-one target of the Oklahoma Education Association. Pro-education choice candidates won consistently.”

The Legislature's top advocate of parental choice in education, and other brands of creativity in Oklahoma schooling, says this is “an idea whose time has come. The results in my race and in in all the other contests means the future is bright.”

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