As I write, I realize the hurdles facing Oklahoma education. Social, cultural, political, bureaucratic, and in many ways, hampered by an environment devoid of trust for teachers and simultaneously with no trust whatsoever for the legislatures. Our education regardless, our education system is in decline, as it has been for quite some time. I doubt when I graduated in 2004 that I was as well educated as my mother, also of my alma mater. When I went to teach there years later, I was sure that we weren’t providing even at the level my wife and I received. We are failing. On many levels, we are failing, and I wonder if reforms will ever resolve the gap between what is and what should be. I honestly wonder if a complete shift in how Oklahoma educates is the only real solution.
That’s what brought me to the subject of school choice.
School Choice is the option that parents have the option to send their children who are attending failing schools run by the state to private charter schools with less state oversite and management where they believe their child will have greater success. A charter school is a private school that uses state and local tax funding in place of tuition. This is known as a voucher program, where the voucher represents the child’s share of taxes that would have gone toward public education now used as the tuition of the charter school. Since charters rely on state tax funding, they aren’t traditional private schools open only to the very wealthy. Working class children or children of any background are admitted, provided they follow the rules. Normally, these schools rank very highly in any objective measurements of pupil learning, while some are specialized, such as those meant to teach and preserve native culture. Their implementation and growth, however, have been severely hampered by various interest groups, meaning that there are very few of these schools with very few seats available, often necessitating a lottery where parents register in the hopes that their child will randomly be awarded one of the few open seats.
One of the interest groups preventing charter schools becoming more widespread is the public school system itself. Of the state’s some 560 school districts, only 30 are charters. There are many reasons that state education would resist a move towards charters, but the primary reason is that competition with private schools would force painful, and often necessary reforms even faster than what is demanded by marches and protests.
School vouchers are a program where schools are forced to compete for students. Vouchers allow for the creation of charter schools in areas that are too poor to afford the high tuition of private schools. Vouchers break down the total budget of a district to the student, saying very coldly that if there are 1000 students in a district, each child is worth 0.1% of the budget. If the school’s budget is $10,000,000, then the child rates $10,000 that the locality and state are willing to put toward their education. With a voucher, a parent can transfer their student and take those dollars as the tuition for the charter school. This removes the funds from the public school, which is where competition comes into play. For example, if parents aren’t satisfied funding sports program where their child receives a third of the per-pupil spending of an athlete for the same tax dollars… they don’t have to. And if Mrs. Teacher doesn’t want to work at a school where her talents aren’t as appreciated as a coach who constantly fails in his education duties, maybe she doesn’t have to teach in that environment either. Or maybe there are other reasons. Maybe parents and teachers want an environment dedicated to more Science exploration. And you want to be honest about something? There are a lot of teachers who don’t like working in schools where you could lose your job for having a cross with a verse from the book of Corinthians on it. And if we are being more honest, there are a lot of parents who don’t want their kids going to schools where religion has been anti-septically cleansed from the curriculum and the culture. Oklahoma’s in the middle of the Bible Belt for goodness sakes, but while we preach the virtues of individuality, we demand our teachers and students repress this fundamental aspect of their lives and woe to anyone who teaches a history of Christianity that isn’t saturated with cynicism, if you’re allowed to teach the history of the largest population in the world, at all.
If we are speaking honestly, School Choice solutions are where innovations are going to come from. Oklahoma schools are failing, stagnant at best and unequipped to offer competitive compensation for teachers, or even resources for their classrooms. When individual schools are allowed to follow the evidence to create new methods, they discover solutions that work for everyone.
Don’t believe me? Ask Science teachers about controlled experiments. A control (the public schools) is measured against other samples trying different things. Some fail, but others reveal new discoveries. You repeat the experiments with the successful batches as the new controls and repeat. This is evolution.
Charters allow for experimenting with different solutions to today’s problems. Why is this good? Because if a charter school discovers a new method that creates better results, more efficiency, or happier teachers and students, everyone gets to copy that model. We all benefit. Maybe even one of them will discover a model to keep the sports alive or specialize in teaching our ESL students with new methods for the rest. Compare that to today, where all innovation comes from the broken system that is Oklahoma Education, and you’ll see why we’re stagnant and inept to implement new ideas or retain quality educators.
If schools want to keep the kids, and the tax dollars associated with them, they will be forced into making decisions that prove to parents their kids are better off with the public school. Furthermore, teachers will have something they’ve never had either… a choice in where they work. As of now, no matter where you work, it’s all still under the same state department. Maybe that’s the problem, so maybe teachers would rather work where the only avenue to a better quality of life wasn’t a walkout. With choices, schools who want to keep parents and quality teachers are going to need to make meaningful changes now, which is good for everyone.
Despite this, another group has incentives to fight charter schools — teachers unions. Organized labor in the education industry also has incentives to resist charter programs as teachers unions, even in very red states like Oklahoma, still exercise a great deal of leverage over Oklahoma politics. This is often why mentioning school choice invites a lot of hate in the education world.
Charter schools are private institutions that can run by their own theories and best practices in pursuit of what they believe is the best path for their kids. This means that the unions have very little pull there. It also means that in many private schools, teachers get paid even less, but what they get in compensation is often reduced or even free tuition for their children, more resources, and far greater autonomy in the classroom. I have a friend who teaches in the Chicago area under a similar system and is far happier with the marginal pay cut than to work in the public school system. But even if teachers are happier, teachers unions can’t be in support of something that will rob their coffers and their membership numbers. All that’s saying is be suspicious when your building rep for the local unions has nothing good to say about such programs. This isn’t to say some charters haven’t failed or that they are perfect, but to know the incentives of the people you speak to on subjects you want to know more about.
Having said all of this, and at the current rate, Oklahoma will never be a leader in education. We may never even be on par with the rest of the country, no matter the protests, outrage, or demands for more money from a state which has none. More terrifying, if we can’t fix our education crisis, the solutions for our future won’t come from Oklahoma either. This means that we need to start making some revolutionary changes to the fundamental way in which education is done in Oklahoma. School choice is one of the most disruptive of these choices, but perhaps it’s also our best option.
That’s why I advocate for school choice. I want this to sink in, I am a former public school teacher married to a current public school teacher, arguing for school choice. Listen to what I have to say.