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Choice and Accountability

July 16, 2012

I am an unabashed supporter of public education, so it may seem somewhat contradictory that I also support school choice. I do not, however, support School Choice. Allow me to elaborate.

I believe that our society benefits from having a well-educated populace. As such, we have an obligation to make sure that a quality education is available for every child. We can all disagree about what “quality education” means, and that’s fine. We can also point to places and times of students not receiving the kind of education that we would want for our own kids.

It’s human nature to want better things for our own kids than we want for all kids. I have heard urban and suburban parents say they would never send their kids to school in small towns, and I have heard rural parents say they would never send their kids to large high schools. The preferences come down to the environment you want for your kids.

I don’t want my child getting lost in the crowd.

I don’t want my child going to a school where so little is offered.

I don’t want my child to have to ride a bus for 45 minutes to get to school.

I don’t want my child going to school in a 70 year old building that looks 100.

And on it goes. As parents, we are responsible for making the lowercase choices and deciding what is best for our kids. We select where we live, in part, based on the schools that our children will attend. We expect the state-supported schools to meet minimum standards, both in terms of curriculum and community values.

But there is a difference between school choice in principle and School Choice – the movement. Advocates of the movement also favor full-on vouchers that will allow federal, state, and local dollars to follow their children into any educational environment.

Sometimes, parents want something more or something different, they decide to pull our children out of public school. Many parents who want their children’s education to include a religious component put them in private, sectarian schools. This – of course – is fine; it’s the parents’ choice. This choice should not be funded with state dollars, however.

Other parents choose to homeschool their children. For them, Oklahoma is one of the least restrictive states. Parents do not need the state’s permission to homeschool children, and students are not required to demonstrate any kind of mastery. There will be no 3rd grade retention or ACE graduation appeals for homeschool students because the state of Oklahoma only provides funds to test public school students.

Oklahoma parents also have charter schools and online schools from which to choose. And now, you can combine them for online charter schools. Some public school districts have magnet schools, as well. In fact, you could even make the argument that the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics is a school of Choice. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs’ Brandon Dutcher and I had a Twitter argument over that a few weeks ago. He promptly ended it explaining that he doesn’t engage in discussions with anonymous “lurkers.” Then he quit following okeducationtruths on Twitter.

My argument with OSSM – as well as with many private, charter, and magnet schools – is that it’s not a school of choice if they don’t have to choose you back. Governor Fallin chose to decrease taxes, but the legislature didn’t comply with her choice. I can choose all kinds of things, but I can’t achieve them if there is a person on the other end who may or may not reciprocate my choice.

Where our state falls behind others is in the use of vouchers as a means of school choice. Only through the Lindsay Nicole Henry scholarship may parents of special education students choose to put their children in private schools. Where some districts and the courts have objected, still, is the use of public funds for religious purposes.

Oklahoma’s use of vouchers, to date, has been limited to the special education domain. At the risk of having a master or rhetoric tell me I’m falling prey to a slippery slope argument, I expect this is the beginning of a push for a full-scale voucher program, like the one in Louisiana. Recent stories from that state involve the use of public dollars to fund textbooks from Bob Jones.. And one legislator saying she never would have voted for vouchers if she knew they were going to allow Muslims to use them to open a school.

When I say I support a lowercase school choice, I mean that I support parents and their right to choose to teach their children inaccurate, racist, and narrow-minded versions of what students are learning in public school. Public funds shouldn’t support this practice though.

Back in January, our governor and our state superintendent celebrated National School Choice Week, with Superintendent Barresi saying, “In a free country, with so many exceptional school offerings, there is no reason a child’s education should be bound by his parent’s income level or his geographical location.”

Does she think Holland Hall is going to open the floodgates for all of Tulsa County’s population, regardless of a parent’s ability to donate? Does she think Christian Heritage Academy is going to teach children of all creeds?

And let’s say for a minute that they do, will the state hold them accountable with cumbersome A-F report cards?

I doubt it.

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