BY DAVID PERRYMAN
A few months ago, a poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies found that, by a 2-1 margin, Oklahomans oppose using taxpayer dollars to pay for students to attend private schools. The poll showed that 48% of Oklahomans strongly oppose giving parents money for their children to attend a private or religious school compared to only 24% percent who strongly support it.
Swing voters – those who don’t identify with either party – oppose vouchers by a more than 3-1 margin. Voters in rural communities were the most opposed to vouchers. Most telling is the fact that more than 60% said they oppose state government giving parents money to pay for private or religious schooling.
According to Glen Bolger, one of the pollsters, “The results show that there is simply no desire on the part of Oklahoma voters to begin providing parents with school vouchers,” and “even base Republicans and very strong conservatives become less supportive of school vouchers once they learn more.”
Since statehood, the Oklahoma Constitution has protected public schools. There is the express mandate in Art. I, Sec. 5, that Oklahoma’s public schools be free from religious control and the provision in Art. XI, Sec. 5 that reserves School Land Commission real estate for the sole benefit of public schools and never for religious schools.
Also adopted in 1907, Art. II, Sec. 5, of the Oklahoma Constitution, provides that no public money may be directly or indirectly used or appropriated for the benefit of any sect, church, denomination or system of religion.
Anti-public education groups across the nation have for years endeavored to divert precious tax dollars to religious and private schools in the name of school choice. Oklahoma’s Constitutional provisions have been a thorn in the side of those who aim to allow public money to be used for non-public schools. Despite repeated attempts to invade public funding for private and religious schools, Oklahoma’s Constitution has protected public tax dollars for public education.
In response, over the past decade, private and religious school proponents have initiated a concerted effort to eliminate the constitutional provisions that protect public funds for public schools. History revisionists characterize these constitutional protections as archaic and hate-filled attacks on Catholicism.
In truth, this type of protection was adopted in states across the country when Catholics objected to the use of Protestant texts in public schools and sought public funding for schools in which Catholic texts would be used. Since America was a “melting pot” that invited people of all races, creeds, religions and cultural backgrounds, most state governments believed that the common good would be served by providing that no public money be used for the benefit of any sect, church, denomination or system of religion, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon or otherwise, whatever the future might bring [including Islam].
In 1907, the delegates to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention went a step further. Not only did they craft Article II, Sec. 5 to prohibit public money from religious use, they included public property in that prohibition.
Imagine the delight of those who want to direct public money to private and religious schools when the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled this summer that Article II, Sec. 5, the constitutional provision that had been a thorn in their side for years was the same constitutional provision that prohibited the placement of the Ten Commandments monument on public property at the Oklahoma Capitol.
In 2003 polls showed that 73% of Oklahomans supported the placement of a Ten Commandments monument in the state Supreme Court. Many want the monument to remain on the Capitol grounds. Proponents of using public funds for private and religious schools have rushed forward and joined forces with those who want the monument to remain, urging the immediate repeal of Article II, Sec. 5.
It is likely that Oklahomans will vote on the issue sometime in the next 18 months. Do we throw out the protection of public funds for public schools so that the monument may stay on the Capitol grounds? Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater?
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives