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Pro-779 efforts veiled attempt at getting more charter schools established?

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
Pro-SQ 779 booth at Groovefest in Norman in September 2016.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – When Norman resident Melody Ball began researching State Question 779, the ballot question which would change the state constitution to assess a 1 percent sales tax for education, with specifications on how the revenue is allocated, she was surprised to learn that wealthy individuals with no real history of supporting public schools, were donating heavily to the political action committee pushing 779.

Ball suspects that with all of the talk about teacher raises and improving education, if 779 were to pass (raising roughly $615 million annually, according to YesFor779.org), a hidden agenda would soon be revealed, involving the the promotion of privately-controlled charter schools, at the expense of public education.

With her tablet pulled up to a Facebook page called “Exposed: Oklahoma Charter/Public Schools and SQ 779,” Ball told Red Dirt Report that she and other likeminded online activists --“interested citizens,” as she described it -  Ball spent many hours over the past day or so researching 779, following the release of a state Ethics Commission report filed this week.

“Oklahoma is dear to my heart and we are so good at shooting ourselves in the foot,” Ball said.

The PAC, Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, Ball said, received nearly $4.3 million in contributions from an odd stew of organizations including pro-charter school political organizations (57.1 percent); educational union and professional organizations (11.9 percent); the Chickasaw and Cherokee Tribes (14 percent); and even the main supporter of 779, University of Oklahoma Pres. David Boren ($167,000 of her personal money), and the remaining 13 percent from various others, including $100,000 from Rooney Holdings, the parent company of Manhattan Construction, as reported in the Tulsa World on Wednesday.

Chairman of Naples, Fla.-based Rooney Holdings is L. Francis Rooney III, who is currently running as a Republican in Florida’s 19th congressional district and has the endorsement of a number of newspapers in that corner of southwest Florida.

Rooney, a native of Muskogee, Okla., is the majority owner of the Manhattan Construction Company, which has been involved in construction projects including the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Texas, the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol in Washington; work on the Oklahoma State Capitol and at Oklahoma State University as well as building the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas and currently working on the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas.

Rooney is a reliable Republican of the Bush/Cheney variety and was seemingly rewarded with an ambassadorship to the Holy See in Rome from 2005 to 2008 during the George W. Bush presidency.

Regarding charter schools, Rooney’s campaign website, FrancisRooney.com, is light on specifics and heavy on “tough” rhetoric. However we saw nothing about education listed on his “Issues” section.

However, we did find a commentary piece Rooney wrote for The Hill in May 2016 headlined “A positive agenda for Republicans” where he touts his support of “local efforts to increase competition and accountability in primary and secondary education.”

Continuing, Rooney wrote: “The recent defunding of the highly successful “Opportunity Scholarship” program in Washington, DC, is an unfortunate example of another retreat from these goals.  Fortunately Speaker Ryan succeeded in restoring it.  Scholarships like this program, voucher programs and charter schools offer proactive means of showing all Americans, especially the disadvantaged, that we are committed to affording all of our citizens an opportunity to better themselves and their families.  However, we must also demand results from all students, including the disadvantaged, and not allow poverty to be used as an excuse for academic failure.  These excuses rob the future from our most vulnerable Americans.”

Red Dirt Report sought comment from Rooney and his campaign about the donation. We have yet to hear back from the ambassador and/or his staff.

And while Ball acknowledges Rooney Holdings’ contribution is perfectly legal, she said she found it “odd.”

One of the biggest contributors to the pro-779 group is Tulsa-based businesswoman and philanthropist Stacy H. Schusterman, who gave $1 million to Oklahoma’s Children.

Ball’s research revealed that Schusterman is also on the board of directors for the Charter Growth Fund, a pro-charter school organization “deeply committed to improving K-12 education.”

Seeing such heavy hitters supporting 779, Ball is quick to note that in her overview of the ethics report, no K-12 teachers were listed as contributors to the PAC. She finds it curious that the teachers aren't donating in droves, particularly if it would improve their situation.

“Money is controlling our elections in Oklahoma,” she said.

Ball has many reservations about 779, including the fact that the money would come via sales taxes – hitting Oklahoma’s poor the hardest - and not property or income taxes.

“I am personally against 779, but not for the reasons that are often touted,” she said. “I feel like no one in Oklahoma speaks up for the poor. Those who should be the most engaged are the least engaged.”

As for charter schools, Ball said these are largely private schools utilizing public tax dollars, schools, she said that “don’t have to live up to the same regulations that public schools do.”

Red Dirt Report reached out to Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. The OEA is backing 779. When asked if there is anything to the suspicion that this constitutional amendment regarding charter schools, she said there was nothing to it.

"There's nothing in SQ 779 that expands charter schools," Priest said. "Not one word about charter schools in the constitutional amendment."

Priest added that while one of the supporters of SQ 779, Stand for Children, may have charter school ties, that is all she has heard about. 

"I urge people to read the ballot," she said.

Meanwhile, Ball said she will continue to dig and inform people as much as she can about these political issues that matter to her and many other Oklahomans.

 “Follow the money,” Ball said. “It tells you so much when you follow the money.”

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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