In late April, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed a bipartisan bill which had unanimous Senate approval that would have required those appointed by the governor as cabinet secretaries or to head state agencies to file financial disclosure statements.
At the time, KFOR’s K. Querry-Thompson reported Sen. Bill Coleman (R-Ponca City) as saying “The Legislature has worked hard in recent years trying to ensure that state contracts are awarded to Oklahoma companies as much as possible. Our state tax dollars need to be used to support Oklahoma businesses and jobs, not go to out-of-state entities.”
Stitt’s veto reflects the kind of hypocrisy we expect from a Republican claiming to advocate transparency.
But on May 19, joint research from The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch likely provided a hint behind the governor’s veto.
It seems that Ryan Walters, Stitt’s $40,000-a-year appointed secretary of education – and now a candidate for state superintendent – “makes at least $120,000 a year as executive director of a nonprofit organization (Every Kid Counts Oklahoma) that keeps its donors secret.”
The watchdogs’ investigation “has found that much of the organization’s funds come from national school privatization and charter school expansion advocates, including the Walton Family Foundation and an education group founded by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch.”
Rural Republican senators united to defeat Stitt’s plan to steal public education funding for private schools this spring. That he would choose a public education opponent as his secretary of education makes sense. That said advisor would also be paid – while on the state payroll – by groups aiming to destroy public education makes dollars and cents, I guess.
Every Kid Counts Oklahoma? Yes, each one enrolled in public schools counts toward state funding. So, taking state funds to pay for private schools slaps public schools twice: first, by reducing the overall amount of public education funding, and then by reducing the number of students in a school system. Republicans want an indoctrinated, not educated, populace.
The joint investigation reported that the organization headed by Stitt’s secretary of education “has since signed on to petitions and open lettersfrom national groups pushing for educational privatization and charter school expansion, and helped promote school funding legislation opposed by many public school advocates.
“Under Walters’ leadership, the nonprofit also advocated for passage of school choice and voucher bills during the 2022 legislative session.”
An earlier investigation from Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier revealed how Walters helped a Florida company, ClassWallet, secure a no-bid contract to distribute $8 million in federal coronavirus relief money through $1,500 grants.
No bids? No oversight either: “The money was intended to buy tutoring and educational supplies. But a lack of safeguards allowed parents to use some of the funds to buy TVs, gaming consoles and home appliances,” according to the report.
I’m not sure if throwing people $1,500 in free money could be construed as trying to buy votes. But, a lack oversight that has spawned a U.S. Dept. of Education audit of how Oklahoma used its funds bodes ill for state taxpayers if an incompetent, opponent of public education becomes state superintendent with a budget of more than $3 billion to mismanage.
And, lo and behold, the Legislature Friday overrode Stitt’s veto of the financial disclosure transparency bill. Maybe such obvious double-dipping conflicts of interest can be avoided in the future.
(Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party: scdpok.us or facebook.com/SCDPOK/.)