During a campaign stop at a coffee shop in the small western Oklahoma town of Seiling, Kevin Stitt was losing his patience as the local newspaper publisher grilled him over private school vouchers.
“I’m not cutting expenditures bro,” Stitt said, in response to the publisher’s questions on public school funding.
Paul Laubach, the publisher of the Dewey County Record, stood in the corner of the room with his arms folded as other locals gathered to hear Stitt speak looked on in silence.
Laubach contributed to Stitt’s campaign in 2018, but now calls him an “autocrat.” His newspaper ran a recent front-page editorial comparing the governor to Chinese President Xi Jinping over Stitt’s plan to allow parents to use state funding meant for public schools to send their kids to private schools. Stitt won Dewey County by 62 points in 2018, but some residents now fear the voucher plan could siphon vital funding away from their small rural schools.
“I’m just asking you what the truth is …. and you won’t tell anybody the facts,” Laubach said, speaking over Stitt.
Stitt raised his voice and pointed his finger at the man during one part of the exchange.
“I’m giving you the truth,” Stitt said. “And I’ve answered about five of your questions so now I’m going to talk to real people.”
Stitt continuously fielded questions from voters about his school voucher plan in towns like Seiling, Vici, Woodward and Watonga during a day-long trip through Western Oklahoma on Oct. 28.
Recent polling from Oklahoma City-based consulting firm Amber Integrated shows Stitt with an eight-point lead over Democratic Challenger Joy Hofmeister outside of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas.
But Hofmeister’s message that Stitt’s plan would kill rural schools seems to be resonating with rural voters.
“This is a governor who is pushing his voucher scheme and it will be a rural school killer,” Hofmeister said at a campaign event in Grove on Saturday. “You kill the school, you kill the community. This matters for all Oklahomans. We have to have safe and healthy communities and we have to have world-class schools. We can’t have a governor that continues to privatize, putting profit over people.”
Also helping Hofmeister spread this message are Super PACs that have dumped more than $12 million into media buys and mailers supporting her or opposing Stitt.
“How do you really feel about rural schools?” Heather Jones, a Republican who works as a barber at the local truck stop, asked Stitt in Seiling. “Because this is a rural community.”
Jones said she was worried about her daughter’s education after she heard about Stitt’s voucher plan.
Crystal Cox, a Republican whose husband is a math teacher at Canton High School, said she’s a staunch supporter of Stitt and plans on voting for him. But at a campaign event in Watonga, Cox said she was fearful the voucher plan would harm her community. She said some of her Republican friends plan to vote for Hofmeister because they don’t want to see their schools shut down.
At campaign events, Stitt claimed rural schools won’t be affected by the voucher plan, because there are fewer private school options to drain state educational funds in those areas.
“I will do everything in my power to protect rural schools,” he said.
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He explained that the reason he is pushing for school vouchers is because parents in urban areas were “begging for more choices.”
In Vici, he told voters that the schools in North Tulsa have “high gang violence, dropout rates are terrible and the ACT scores are terrible” as opposed to rural schools where “they’re doing such a good job” and everyone is “so close and you know your superintendent.”
“What we’re talking about is in those inner-city schools that those parents can use a part of that money to go to a school that maybe is open or maybe is smaller, maybe it’s a Catholic school or a Christian school,” he said. “So please don’t get confused about what we’re doing in South Oklahoma City for some of the Hispanic community or in North Tulsa for the African American community, that’s totally different than in Vici. We will not do anything to harm our schools and our football teams.”
But Stitt failed to mention that despite the options being few, students who attended rural districts could still move to private schools, taking state funding with them.
This is a concern for Coby Nelson, superintendent of Vici Public Schools, who asked Stitt about where money for the voucher program would come from.
Stitt said funding for the program would come from the state’s portion of school funding — which is about $4,000 a year, per student— and not from local property taxes. But Vici schools wouldn’t lose any of that money if no students decided to leave the district.
Even a cut of $70,000 a year could mean losing funding for Vici to pay two teachers, Nelson, a Republican, said in an interview after the event.
Greg Gregory, a Republican and the superintendent of Seiling Public Schools, also spoke to Stitt about his concerns for the voucher plan.
Gregory voted for Stitt in 2018, but is now undecided. It will take “almost everything against me to vote for a Democrat,” Gregory said, but now he will likely make up his mind when he goes into the voting booth.
Stitt admitted that he is outmatched when it comes to messaging. A recent campaign mailer funded by the Super PAC Imagine This Oklahoma claimed Stitt wants to cut funding for rural public schools to “pay for private schools in big cities.”
“The thing that’s disappointing is there’s been so many negative ads and disinformation out there that harms Oklahoma, there’s been I don’t know how many mailers to people saying that I’m gonna kill their rural schools. That’s simply not true,” Stitt said in an interview. “And so I’m having to explain ‘Guys, that’s not true. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to continue to fund your education system and we love rural communities.’”
Stitt realizes that he can’t reach everyone before Election Day.
“I can’t get to all 4 million Oklahomans, so you have to carry the message,” Stitt told voters in Watonga. “You have to go tell your friends and neighbors.”