Oklahoma is a deep red state. In 2020, Donald Trump won the state with nearly two-thirds of the vote. The state’s governor, both U.S. senators and all five members of the House of Representatives are Republicans. And the GOP holds about 80% of the seats in both houses of the state legislature. So when Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Senate Leader Greg Treat declared a statewide school voucher bill a top priority for the 2022 legislative session, it might have seemed like its passage would be a foregone conclusion. But when the legislature adjourned in late May, the voucher bill had failed on a 24-22 vote in the Oklahoma Senate and hadn’t even been called for a vote in the Oklahoma House.
How could this happen? How could a bill supported by the Republican governor and introduced by the leader of the Oklahoma Senate fail to achieve a majority in a chamber where the GOP held more than three-quarters of the seats? And why didn’t it even make it to the floor of the Oklahoma House?
Well, in states like Oklahoma, it’s common for issues — including, occasionally, education issues — to divide lawmakers not just along party lines, but along rural/urban lines as well. And this very scenario played out with the private school voucher legislation.
Many rural Oklahoma school districts are struggling financially. In this case, rural lawmakers were concerned that creating a statewide voucher program would further strain the finances of their popular public schools. Beyond that, there simply aren’t many educational opportunities in rural parts of the state, which limits the appeal of voucher legislation to families in those areas.
Given these political dynamics, when the school voucher legislation came up for a final vote on the Oklahoma Senate floor, it received the support of only 21 of the chamber’s 38 Republicans. Almost all of the 17 GOP lawmakers who voted against the bill represent rural areas of the state. Combining those 17 GOP “No” votes with near-unanimous Democratic opposition gave voucher opponents enough votes to torpedo the bill. Even if this bill had passed the Senate, however, it is unlikely that the legislation would have reached Governor Stitt’s desk. The Oklahoma House Speaker, who hails from a town with a population of about 3,000, had previously stated that the House would not hear the bill in the 2022 session.
Voucher policy reappears in the 2022 midterms
Oklahoma’s private school voucher policy extends beyond the 2022 legislative session and into this year’s gubernatorial race, which pits incumbent GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt against Democratic challenger Joy Hofmeister. Hofmeister has an interesting history. She is currently Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, a post she was first elected to in 2014 and then re-elected in 2018. However, in an interesting twist, Hofmeister was elected to that position both times as a Republican. But a series of high-profile disputes over school vouchers and other issues, along with the reality of term limits, prompted Hofmeister to switch parties and run against Governor Stitt in the gubernatorial election.
Hofmeister’s opposition to private school vouchers is one of the defining issues of her campaign this fall. Additionally, it is listed first in the “Issues” section of its campaign website. And while Governor Stitt says a voucher program would “fund students, not systems,” Superintendent Hofmeister travels the state referring to private school vouchers as “rural school killers.” In sparsely populated areas of the state where public schools are an important part of the economic and social fabric — they provide everything from employment to weekend entertainment spaces and community gatherings — such a message just might resonate with voters. . If the polls are to be believed, the 2022 governor’s race looks like it will be a bitter one, with recent polls showing a race that is much closer than the typical statewide election in Oklahoma.
Although the multidimensionality of school voucher politics is on display in Oklahoma, it is not the only state where these dynamics play out. Indeed, the urban/rural divide among GOP lawmakers on this issue almost certainly contributes to the lack of statewide school choice programs in other red states, including Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Alabama, Montana, Utah , the Dakotas and, perhaps. mostly, Texas. On the face of it, the partisan and ideological makeup of these states’ legislatures appears to predispose them to school vouchers and educational choice programs in general. However, the realities of rural schooling cut across these partisan and ideological considerations and introduce a second major dimension to school voucher politics in red states.
As with most policy topics these days, we have come to see many education issues in purely partisan terms. Part of this is due to the reality that much of the education policy debate is disproportionately driven by events in large urban districts and coastal states, contexts where partisanship is often the defining dimension. However, when we look beyond these contexts, we see that political realities can be much more complex. This complexity will be evident in the mid-term of 2022 – but only if we are willing to look beneath the surface.