The banter between District 2 Senate candidates Ami Shaffer and Sean Burrage may have sounded lighthearted Tuesday, but the serious undertone of unresolved education issues filled the Pizza Hut meeting room.
“I think we’re replacing Hargis and Turpen,” Shaffer, the Republican candidate, quipped to opponent Sean Burrage, a Democrat.
Burns Hargis, a Republican, and Mike Turpen, a Democrat, are co-hosts of an award-winning public affairs show "Flashpoint," which is broadcast on KFOR television in Oklahoma City.
Burrage smiled and nodded his head as references were made to what will no doubt become the traveling “Ami and Sean” or “Sean and Ami” road show for the two Senate hopefuls over the next five weeks.
So far, it’s just been door knocking, fundraising and networking for the candidates. Tuesday’s face-to-face was one of the first in-person public forums contrasting and comparing their views on high profile local and state issues.
On Tuesday, the audience of educators wasted no time in getting to the point.
Shaffer’s commitment to “government supported” education was the first question.
Shaffer countered quickly. “I’m a product of public education.
“Yes, my husband is pastor of the Church at Claremore” which supports the private Claremore Christian School program. But, Shaffer’s response was a definite attempt to squelch any suspicions of a philosophical conflict or lack of support, on her part, regarding public education.
“I believe in public education. I believe in compulsory education,” Shaffer said.
“But not every child fits in the same grid ... I also believe in lots of alternatives.”
Shaffer’s claim as “an educator” was also questioned later during the forum. When asked if she was an Oklahoma certified teacher, she replied, “No, I am not.”
She said her academic qualifications include 11 years teaching experience as a substitute in the public school classrooms and as a classroom teacher in the private school arena. She said her high school education was in the public schools and she also attended Cameron University. After raising her children, Shaffer said at the age of 40 she went back to school to earn her juris doctorate.
Burrage, a practicing attorney, claims a family lineage of public school teachers. Along with other teaching family members, Burrage’s mother taught elementary school and is now a principal.
Candidates also answered questions about school vouchers, the teachers retirement system, censorship and No Child Left Behind.
Shaffer admitted the jury is still out for her on school vouchers.
“I do believe charter schools are better than vouchers,” she said. “The jury is still out on vouchers, and I’m still out on that.”
Burrage’s response was clear cut and to the point. “The jury’s in,” he said. “I’m against vouchers.”
When questions turned to the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System, Burrage answered first saying the system is only 49 percent funded and that the claims of a balanced state budget are not valid as long as the system reminds underfunded.
Shaffer agreed the “teacher retirement system is embarrassing.”
“I will sponsor legislation to keep from raiding the system,” Shaffer said.
Another question was raised about legislation proposed in the last session calling for reallocation of revenue from the School Land Commission to the retirement system.
Shaffer admitted that was a subject she needed to learn more about.
Burrage said he is not in support of diverting funds that are already going to common and higher education to “shore up” the retirement system.
“We are already spending $3,000 to $5,000 less per student than Kansas and Nebraska, our neighbors,” Burrage said. He suggested other funding sources are available and can be permanently committed to keep the fund solvent.
In addition, Burrage said contribution commitments and matching contributions to the retirement system should not be allowed “holidays” even during a downturn in the economy.
These are “not negotiable,” Burrage said.
He also cautioned voters about tax cuts which could in an economic downturn ”raid” the Teachers Retirement System. He said recent tax cuts are almost irreversible under state law. It now takes a super majority to pass a state tax.
Censorship received a passing note in the informal forum.
Shaffer said she is “against the whole concept” of legislative-driven censorship, citing instances where private schools have more academic freedoms than public schools.
“I’m not a fan of censorship,” Shaffer said. “But, I do believe there are some materials that should not be available on the grade school level.”
She said teaching materials should be a local issue decided by the school and the parents.
Burrage agreed the Legislature should “stay out of that [censorship] business. If you start doing that, then you will have a knee-jerk reaction.”
Shaffer said she did not know a lot of specifics about the controversial “No Child Left Behind” program promoted by the Republican administration of President George Bush.
Burrage attack the program saying, “In concept, No Child Left Behind, sounded good. But in reality, it set up some schools for failure.”
He said the impact was particularly hard on small, rural schools where there were not enough resources already.
“Teaching the test ... is the main problem you have with it,” Burrage said. He said teachers feel tremendous pressure from the administration to perform well on math and reading (the two main components for performance reviews). This focus leaves little time for other subjects such as science and the arts.
Shaffer said she understood the extreme frustration with teaching to a style of learning.
The “65 percent solution” (proposed legislation that would require 65 percent of all school budgets to go directly to the classroom) was not seen as a solution by either candidate.
“Sounds good, but does not play out well,” Shaffer said.
District Judge candidate Dale Marlar attended, as did House District 6 candidate Chuck Hoskins.