In Oklahoma, the political fault line is not drawn between Democrats and Republicans—It resides between urban and rural legislators. This rift explains why charter schools were only allowed to exist in the Oklahoma’s two largest urban counties in 2014 when the National Alliance and our state partners began working to expand charter school options throughout the state.
Armed with strong polling data showing that 80% of Oklahomans believed that all children in Oklahoma should have charter school options, the National Alliance went all in during the 2014 legislative session. We educated everyone we could, and had countless meetings with legislators, and community and political leaders—supporters and opponents alike. Despite those efforts, and the tremendous fight on behalf of charter schools by Oklahoma charter champions Rep. Lee Denney, Sen. Clark Jolley, and Gov. Mary Fallin, we were trounced in the House. The charter school bill died by a vote of 64-26, largely defeated by rural Republicans.
Sitting in the House gallery, watching months of work go up in flames, it was apparent that the key to winning in Oklahoma was to win over rural Republicans. But how? We had solid polling data showing support for rural charter schools in Oklahoma and had even produced a video highlighting four of the best rural charter schools in America that we showed to virtually every rural legislator. Why wouldn’t rural lawmakers vote to empower parents in their districts? Meeting after meeting with legislators supplied the answer—most of them didn’t understand charter schools and simply believed that they were not needed in rural areas. They didn’t understand that charter schools can coexist, even cooperate, with traditional school districts. They didn’t see charter schools as empowering parents, but instead as destroyers of “local control.” One declared, “There will never be a rural charter school in Oklahoma.”
So the summer after the devastating defeat, we loaded up a passenger van with key rural Oklahoma legislators and drove two and a half hours north to tiny Walton, Kansas (population- 233) to visit the Walton Rural Life Center, a charter school that uses agriculture to teach students academics. Lawmakers saw the kids, the animals, sat in on lessons, and peppered school leadership with question after question, soaking up all the knowledge they could in seeming disbelief that a great school such as this could even exist. On the ride home these legislators rarely stopped talking about the school, each taking away a different aspect that resonated with them. It was clear now that rural charter schools could exist in Oklahoma.
In the 2015 session, we came back with a new bill that addressed the lawmaker’s concerns, but allowed for charter schools to be established anywhere in Oklahoma, even the smallest rural community. Former opponents became key supporters. The trip to the charter school in Walton, KS was mentioned in public debate and private meetings alike. When the 2015 bill went up for a final vote, it passed the House by a 64-31 margin, blazed through the Senate on a 35-7 vote, and was signed by Governor Mary Fallin.
Recently, a friend from Oklahoma sent me a link to a news article announcing that Carlton Landing Academy, Oklahoma’s first rural charter school, is set to open this summer. I suspect that the rural parents making the choice to send their children to Carlton Landing Academy will never know that their right to choose a charter school was a tremendous fight that turned in their favor during a road trip on a hot summer day in 2014 to a farm-themed charter school in a tiny Kansas town.
In 2015, the National Alliance recognized Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin as a Champion for Charters.