BY JOHN THOMPSON
“For the life of me,” retiring Tulsa Superintendent Ballard said, “I cannot understand why … at a time when we’re talking about a huge [state revenue] shortfall, why are we shoveling money at private schools.”
Oklahoma is projecting a $611 million reduction in general revenue for the fiscal year that begins July 1, yet the state Senate is considering a voucher bill – SB 609 – that would take tax dollars from public schools and allow them to be spent on private or home schooling.
“This is going to have a disastrous affect on public schools,” added Ballard. “In Tulsa Public Schools alone, the first 500 kids alone that go to a private school are going to take $1 million out of Tulsa Public and move it over to private schools.”
I oppose vouchers, but I’m much more worried about SB 68, which would allow the city governments of Oklahoma City and Tulsa to authorize charter schools [see Editor’s Note below]. The costs of vouchers are primarily monetary, issuing checks to many persons who would never attend public schools, or subsidizing others who then choose private schools.
Classroom seats emptied because of charters, however, would be just as empty as those that lost students to vouchers. And while the costs of vouchers would be spread across the state, the damage done by SB 68 would primarily be born by the poorest children of color in the inner cities.
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 Oklahoma City Public Schools, 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.
If corporate leaders decided that their lives would be easier without unions, especially public service unions, they could use all of the advantages granted to charters to break the OKC AFT.
As a member of the MAPS for KIDS bipartisan reform coalition, I supported charter schools. I still do, even as I mourn the way that the original version of choice has been undermined.
Back then, charters were seen as a source of innovation. [Oklahoma City’s ASTEC and Stanley Hupfield Academy are examples of the type of outstanding 1990s charters that sought holistic instruction, not just drill and kill.] Since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, charters have become a competitive force that, all-to-often, embraced teach-to-the-test shortcuts in an effort to defeat neighborhood schools.
Worse, due to their focus on outperforming traditional public schools, charters have resorted more and more to “creaming” or recruiting and retaining students who are better able to produce higher test score growth.
Worse still, as charters accept a relatively larger number of lower-performing students, they often become more extreme in using behaviorist methods of control that push out large numbers of their students, and deny students the opportunity to learn for more than basic skills.
Even the first generation charters had downsides. They offered a lifeboat to some students trapped in failing schools, but they didn’t lead to more innovation. Whether they wanted to or not, most charter advocates were team players and supported the test, sort, and punish regime that was imposed by corporate reformers. And by skimming off the top students from high-poverty neighborhood schools, they contributed to the harm imposed by the accountability-driven reform movements on our most vulnerable students.
Before the first wave of Oklahoma City charters, our high schools were two-thirds to three-fourths low-income. Choice eventually transformed our neighborhood high schools into 90% to 100% low-income schools; many were left with such extreme numbers of children who have been terribly traumatized that they have proven impossible to improve significantly.
That first wave of charters maxed out years ago. In October 2009, the OKCPS had 13 charters that served 4,809 students. Last year, those 13 [soon to be 12?] charters served six fewer students as the district grew dramatically, meaning that the percentage of charter students dropped.
As is true across the country, Oklahoma City charters perform about as well as traditional public schools. We have some truly great ones – perhaps as wonderful as our OKCPS magnet schools. We have also seen the dangers of failed charters.
Oklahoma City has been blessed with a few high-performing “No Excuses” schools. But those schools only take as many of the challenging students as they can handle. They don’t come close to serving the “same” students as we do in neighborhood schools.
So, even the relatively higher-poverty charters also contribute to the segregating of our most vulnerable students in schools with ever more intense concentrations of children from extreme poverty who have survived terrible trauma.
This second push for choice is a part of an increasingly desperate national campaign funded by “brass knuckle” or “venture philanthropy.” These elite non-educators, who are clueless about the ways that the other half lives, do not understand the reasons why it’s so difficult to improve inner city schools that serve everyone who walks in the door.
The issue isn’t the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. The challenge is serving neighborhoods with extreme concentrations of generational [as opposed to situational] poverty, low levels of social capital, and high percentages of children who have endured Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACE] that are often debilitating.
The most likely result of an increase in “bricks and mortar” charters would be a serious decline in the quality of education for the poorest children of color in the OKCPS, as well as a decline in teacher quality and union membership.
Principals and teachers would have to do even more with even less resources. Our embattled and underfunded educators would once again be distracted from the real battle, implementing high-quality early education, aligned and coordinated socio-emotional supports, and trusting relationships.
If Oklahoma City used its charter authorization power to expand virtual charters, however, we could literally see the death of public education in our city. The market would continue to provide authentic and holistic instruction to affluent families, but the poorest children would likely be relegated online tutorials.
Virtual education or “blended learning,” is another example of a good idea that has largely been perverted by market-driven reform. Teaching in virtual charters has often become a clerical task, overseeing classes of as many as 250 students as they complete computerized worksheets. [By the way, such schools have become a major money-maker for Jeb Bush’s cronies.]
Getting back to Keith Ballard’s criticism, the first 500 students admitted under SB 68 would create one more financial hardship for the OKCPS and Tulsa. The utility bills in the schools they would have attended would not decrease, and the difficulty in paying for the staffing of shrinking schools would increase.
Under SB 68, a city seeking to attract affluent young professionals would not need to use its new-found power on improving outcomes for poor students. Oklahoma City would be free to focus on charters that were guaranteed to succeed because they would be geared toward privileged students and families.
On the other hand, I also worry that charters, being unable to find enough easier-to-educate secondary students, will move into elementary schools. It is one thing for non-educators to experiment with teenagers, but do we really want to take the risk of novices educating our youngest children?
Our high-challenge elementary schools are already 95% to 100% low-income. What happens if the high school pattern is repeated? As the most motivated families and the class leaders are siphoned off into charters, will our elementary schools cross the tipping point the way that our secondary schools did?
– 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.
Editor’s Note: SB 68 is authored by Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City. The House sponsor is Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, a longtime proponent of so-called “school choice.” The Observer obtained a copy of an e-mail that Holt sent to city staff in Oklahoma City on March 3 explaining why this latest anti-public school power play is such a grand idea – a grand idea that its authors clearly hoped would avoid public scrutiny until it was too late in the legislative process to stop. You can read Holt’s e-mail for yourself and decide whether this proposal is fair for all of Oklahoma’s school children:
I wanted to give you a brief heads-up on a bill that passed the Senate today that has flown a bit under the radar, and that’s partly by design. But, the progress it is making might eventually be noticed, and I want you to hear from me what is intended. If it becomes law, it is a game changer for our city.
Currently, various entities are allowed to authorize charter schools – school districts in OKC and Tulsa, career techs, colleges, Indian tribes, etc. Senate Bill 68 adds two new entities to that list – the cities of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Further, the bill provides that those cities can only plant their charter schools in districts with over 15,000 students. Clearly, my focus here is on the needs of the innercity, and the OKCPS, Putnam City and Tulsa school districts all easily clear the threshold.
SB 68 passed the full Senate today, with title on, by a vote of 35-8. This was a strong bipartisan vote, and the supporters included all Republicans and Democrats from Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
I don’t have to tell you that the single most common complaint from young families in the innercity is the state of our public education system. I have sensed the frustrations mounting. We have a few more options than we did 15 years ago, but still not very many. Every day, I hear someone from my generation say “Sure, OKC is doing really well, but until the schools are adequate, I’m still going to have to move to Edmond for my kids.” And the people who hear those concerns the most are you, and you are simultaneously powerless to do much about it. You meet with OKCPS, and they promise to do better, but you have a different perspective than OKCPS. They want their current school sites to succeed, and that’s a worthy goal, but that is the extent of their ambition. In contrast, you want our families to feel they have satisfactory education options in the innercity, regardless of who provides them. SB 68 gives you the power to make that happen, without needing anyone else’s permission.
If SB 68 becomes law, and OKC had the authority to charter schools, you would be able to charter schools unilaterally. To remind you how that works, the operational dollars follow the child. The capital needs would be up to someone else, either the entity or group of people who have submitted a proposal to you, or perhaps as this evolves, the city may want to contribute directly to the construction of schools under its authority. I wouldn’t presume to predict where this may go. I just want you to have the power, and you will exercise your judgment.
Here at the Capitol, I have not portrayed the bill as a request bill, which of course it is not. I have told my colleagues it is important that OKC not publicly ask for the bill, as that may cause tension in the relationship with OKCPS. I want the state to give you the power because it is in the best interest of our city’s young families. And so far, that approach is working.
SB 68 now heads to the House, where Rep. Jason Nelson is the author. He is cced on this e-mail. Please feel free to follow-up if you have questions or thoughts. My cell is xxx-xxxx.
Thanks for all you’re doing.
All my best,
Senator David Holt (R – Oklahoma City)