On July 24, just days after the state’s largest school district postponed its opening and required all classes to be taught in a virtual setting, the Oklahoma Board of Education failed our state’s students and teachers by not ratifying State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s minimum requirements for teaching during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Today’s vote is very disappointing and one that likely will stoke more concerns for teachers, parents and families with a new school year only weeks away,” Hofmeister said at the close of the meeting.
Opinion by George D. Lang
Hofmeister’s plan, which was created through consultation with state health officials, would have required all school districts to follow minimum requirements pertaining to health protocols, including mask requirements and alternative modes of instruction. In addition, Hofmeister proposed restrictions on public events, outside visitors and after-school activities.
But board members Brian Bobek, Estela Hernandez, Bill Flanagan and Jennifer Monies voted instead to make these requirements merely “recommendations.” It was rejected 4-3, with Hofmeister, Kurt Bollenbach and Carlisha Bradley voting for the measure.
Hernandez, who serves as vice chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party, asked the board, “Are we going to allow our democracy to work? It’s about trusting local boards to do what they are trusted to do.”
This is rich coming from Hernandez, who was appointed, not elected, along with everyone on the board except Hofmeister. She is emblematic of a government that refuses to govern, that shuns mandates and proselytizes the gospel of “personal responsibility.”
The safety of our children should not be optional, particularly in an era when anti-vaxxers demand that their flat-earth attitudes toward medicine be given weight in any discussion of public health initiatives.
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, came out swinging against the board’s failure to act decisively.
“We appreciate State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister proposing a plan to make school safer for students and staff. Sadly, four state board members couldn’t find the courage to protect our communities,” Priest said. “This is not a board standing up for local control. It is a governor-appointed board hiding behind those words to escape their responsibilities to the children of Oklahoma.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt is responsible for this failure, having appointed ideologues and political extremists to the board and politicizing the education of our state’s children. Stitt, like most politicians lining up to lick President Donald Trump’s wingtips, only invokes democracy as long as that system of governance comports to his political needs and desires.
Stitt is so anti-democratic in his views, he wants to make the state superintendent an appointed position. He actively wants to take Hofmeister’s position out of the realm of democracy and give it to one of his supplicants.
In January, he made this clear in an interview with Carmen Forman of The Oklahoman.
“When the governor’s elected by all four million Oklahomans, the people think that he or she’s supposed to be able to go in and make some different moves on education to get outcomes,” Stitt said. “That’s just common sense. That’s what I thought when I was sitting in Tulsa in the business world. That’s what people in Oklahoma think.”
Stitt seriously thinks he was elected “by all four million Oklahomans,” including, I guess, all the Oklahoma children who voted for him. Beyond presenting my own vote as Exhibit A against that claim, Stitt won with 644,579 votes against 500,973 votes for Drew Edmondson. He is no different from our pudding-brained commander in chief, who claimed a “massive landslide victory” in a general election in which he came up 3 million short in the popular vote.
Second, Stitt thinks that all Oklahomans want education decisions to be determined by a governor who, time and again, sides against public education. This month, he announced that a sizable percentage of CARES Act emergency block grant funding for Oklahoma will go to private schools.
As Priest said in a July 20 interview with Sean Murphy of The Associated Press, “We’re saying 91% of Oklahoma’s children attend public schools, and funding should be at least commiserate [sic] with that percentage. It shouldn’t go to fund vouchers to pump up private schools, many of which already applied and received COVID relief funding through other sources.”
Hofmeister should be commended for her proposal and the passion she brought to it. Unfortunately, our state government seems incapable of supporting measures that are rooted in science to keep our children safe. Stitt even tested positive for COVID-19, and he will still not mandate masks — not for the public at large and definitely not for public school students.
Our nation is suffering from a leadership crisis in the White House that has allowed over 147,000 people to die. It is unfortunate that Oklahoma has the dinner-theater version of Trump in the Governor’s Mansion.