OKLAHOMA CITY — Out-of-state entities that stand to profit handsomely if voucher legislation advances are believed to be pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars in dark money into local legislative races in a push to unseat incumbents who stand in their way.
Public school advocates and legislators fear the local skirmishes are a microcosm of a much bigger battle — the fight for the soul of public education and the survival of Oklahoma’s rural communities. They say private entities with no Oklahoma ties are circling like sharks, scenting an opportunity to make big money if they can install enough likeminded lawmakers in place to finally pass legislation shifting public dollars to private education.
And, they believe rural communities could be the biggest losers this election cycle if the out-of-state interests are successful in swaying the outcome.
“This is absolutely a fight for our public education system as we know it,” said state Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Clinton. “There are great rural education systems throughout our state, small communities that are able to thrive and teach and learn and grow the way they want to with their own systems in place. (Vouchers) will result in (a) significant amount of closures of public schools, and it will result in a significant amount of consolidation of even more rural schools.”
Moore said his outspoken stance against vouchers, which his legislative district adamantly opposes, has put him at odds with lobbyists.
“They looked me in the eye in the Capitol and told me they were coming after me,” he said. “They said it was no big deal to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars against multiple reps and senators because they knew if they can beat us they would pass vouchers the next year.”
True to their word, Moore said opponents have flown in door-knockers from as far away as Virginia to campaign against him. He’s been the target of no fewer than nine attack mailers, a television commercial and radio ads that he said contain “lies and misinformation.”
The negativity has reached such a fever pitch that he and his wife are temporarily no longer allowing their 9-year-old to check the mail for fear of what will be arriving next.
“They’re trying to turn rural Oklahoma races into D.C. and federal-type races,” Moore said. “It’s a travesty. That is something that we need to make sure that the people from Oklahoma stand up and say we’re not for sale.”
Jonathan Small, with People for Opportunity, a nonpartisan organization, said that Moore and state Reps. Mark McBride and Rhonda Baker have been obstacles in an effort to expand education opportunities for parents and children. He said they have also taken “awful” positions on other issues important to the group’s members.
People for Opportunity has spent over $186,000 trying to influence the outcome of legislative races, including $81,925 on television advertising targeted at ousting Moore along with his Republican colleagues Baker and McBride, according to filings with the state’s Ethics Commission. That group’s television commercial says the trio “voted against commonsense school freedom.” The group also previously sent mailers about a failed voucher bill.
It’s not clear who is funding the dark money flowing into the state races. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that nonprofit organizations seeking to influence elections are not required to disclose the source of their donations.
Small, who has lived in Oklahoma for 41 years, admits his group has not disclosed its list of donors, but said they’re not legally required to. He said that as the Black president of an organization, he finds it offensive that someone would accuse them of having “dark money.”
“Transparency is for government,” Small said. “Privacy is for people. We’re not a government entity. Our funders are Oklahoma-based funders.”
He also said he’s “a little bit confused” by the idea that the group’s attacks against the three lawmakers are part of a bigger battle that’s underway over the soul of public education. Small said his concern is that children and their parents have access to education that best meets the needs of their child.
“If we truly care about creating a place where all Oklahomans can thrive, and especially the most vulnerable, it’s incumbent upon ourselves that we actually look at the performance and outcome of various government programs to see if they’re working,” he said. “For a lot of parents, the current structure or approach, it’s not working for the student. It’s not helping them succeed.”
The 30-second ads, he said, are for the purpose of educating Oklahomans about legislators’ opposition to bills that have expanded the ability for parents and guardians to have more options at the school that best meets their needs.
Erika Wright, founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, a grassroots group with more than 7,000 members, said she believes this is a “fight for the soul of public schools.”
“We’re absolutely at a tipping point. If we lose this war over school choice, that’s a battle for the heart and soul of our communities, which are public schools,” she said.
She said school choice advocates are targeting some of the most pro-public education legislators, who are in positions of power and who have taken public stances against voucher legislation.
“To me, when you have out-of-state interests that are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Oklahoma politics, it’s not because they care about our kids,” Wright said. “People don’t do that. They don’t invest money over things like that just because they care about kids. It’s because they stand to profit.”
Clark Frailey, executive director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, said he’s a product of rural Oklahoma schools, and said there’s been a slowly growing recognition in rural parts of the state that vouchers are going to “suck resources away from their schools and filter it to basically private investors’ pockets.”
“Dark money means that we don’t know where the money comes from, but it speaks to kind of darker intentions, doesn’t it?” he said. “When you’re not doing things in the light, you’re trying to obscure who you are and where you’re coming from.”
Frailey said dark money groups are trying to tip the scales after being stonewalled by those currently in office. He said lawmakers who are “champions for kids and for their local schools” are in the crosshairs.
Baker, R-Yukon, who chairs the House’s powerful common education committee, said Oklahoma has become the latest battleground for outside groups after similar pushes in Georgia and Iowa.
Baker said by representing her constituents, she’s found herself at odds with national groups that stand to make huge profits managing Oklahoma’s proposed voucher program.
“It’s frightening that in one regard you’re trying to fight for children and sell something that you’ve claimed is going to be for the betterment of children, but then you’re going to turn around, and you’re going to belittle and crucify political opponents of yours instead of doing what you’re supposed to be doing, which is sitting down and having conversations and crafting legislation,” she said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.