First Of Four Parts
BY JOHN THOMPSON
Oklahoma families and educators recently learned of Senate Bill 68 – the so-called “game changer” – which would empower the city of Oklahoma City to compete with the Oklahoma City Public Schools. This “under the radar” legislation would allow non-educators to authorize charter schools.
As OKCPS School Board member Phil Horning says, that would be like designating the school system to run fire stations.
SB 68 is an extreme version of choice that grew out of the claim by market-driven reformers that local school boards, teachers’ unions, and university education departments – i.e. the “status quo” – must be destroyed so that “disruptive innovation” can transform schools. In Oklahoma City, it could eventually become a mortal threat to the school system, as well as its teachers union.
If the majority of the City Council gains the power to compete with the OKCPS, SB 68 would allow them to set their own rules in doing so. Oklahoma City could then join the growing ranks of communities where traditional public schools are extinct or nearly all replaced by charters, including “virtual learning” online charters.
This extreme version of school choice is an example of how the contemporary school “reform” movement is in its death throes, and this desperation has led to a double-down on even more risky experiments. This accountability-driven reform movement may have produced the single biggest social policy debacle since Prohibition. Corporate reform failed by ignoring Harry Truman’s maxim, “Any jackass can kick down a barn. It takes a carpenter to build one.”
Perhaps the closest thing to a competition-driven “success” is New Orleans, a district that is now 90% charters. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that had happened to New Orleans schools.
In fact, this hugely expensive gamble has produced modest, possibly fleeting gains, while doing the seemingly impossible for that city – increasing racial and economic segregation even more.
And even if the New Orleans record was not terribly exaggerated by true believers in choice, it has no relevance to Oklahoma City. If reformers get their wish, and a man-made Katrina were to blow up the OKCPS, could we expect an influx from across the nation of the mega-millions of dollars it would take to replace our schools?
That being said, I do not question the sincerity of local market-driven reformers; rarely do I see in Oklahoma the blood-in-the-eye mentality that has made the national corporate reform movement so destructive and vengeful.
But competition-driven reformers have created an echo chamber where “astroturf” think tanks repeat the same misleading and downright false claims about a very few high-poverty, high-performing charter schools. They also seem oblivious to a huge body of social science and cognitive science which predicted the failure of the test-driven, reward and punish approach to school improvement.
It is important that educators fact-check the spin by corporate reformers that might, otherwise, seem persuasive to city council persons and business leaders.
That being said, I’m less sanguine about the motives of corporate reformers who would stand to make huge profits through online charters.
What happens to the six north-side high-challenge elementary schools east of the railroad tracks if a couple of charters compete with them, skimming off the best student leaders and the most motivated parents?
How many of those 90%-plus African-American and 100% low-income schools would be able to maintain their overhead in such a situation?
The same applies to the highest-challenge neighborhood schools in the near south-side or the far eastern part of the district. If those clusters of elementary schools lost their top students, would they cross a “tipping point” the way that secondary schools did?
Dollars to donuts, the result would include highly-profitable “blended learning” charters where 150 or more young students per class would be given earphones and placed in front of online tutorials. Teachers would be reduced to clerks monitoring the data, the corporate elites would rake in thousands of dollars of profit per student, and kids would see how much they were really valued by the market.
[I must also emphasize that blended learning can be used in a balanced way, with educators providing “High Touch” to complement “High Tech” instruction. But that is not the type of online instruction that has usually resulted from the corporations organized by Jeb Bush and other entrepreneurs.]
It is important, however, that educators present positive alternatives. We must explain why “win-win” policies – such as socio-economic integration and full-service community schools – are much more cost effective. These science-driven policies are not as easy to implement, but they yield far better educational results.
Moreover, they produce much greater benefits in health, quality of life, and economic prosperity. These more humane policies yield huge savings in medical and incarceration costs.
Policies designed to build trusting relationships in schools are more than just and equitable. They are the far better method of competing with other cities for investments and for attracting and retaining professional talent.
This is the first in a series of posts. A second will review the history of how Oklahoma City schools were undermined, and why school improvement has proven to be so difficult.
The series will cite my near-central city neighborhood as an example of how socio-economic integration and full-service community schools provide all of the benefits that market-driven reformers seek, without the danger of inflicting severe harm on our poorest children of color.
It will then explain why the scaling up of socio-economic desegregation and addressing the needs of high-poverty schools in a comprehensive manner is not just good morality, it is good economics.
– Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly at The Huffington Post, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.