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Et tu, Gazette?

December 11, 2012

I think we’re all used to this paradigm by now: the Oklahoman shills for groups trying to destroy public education as we know it (or in the case of OCPA, destroy it altogether); meanwhile the Tulsa World presents a counterpoint showing the fallacy of various reform initiatives, sometimes with great zeal for being contrary. Meanwhile, independent publishers such as the Oklahoma Gazette provide coverage of education issues that falls somewhere in the middle.

That’s why today I was shocked to read the editorial by the Bill Bleakley, publisher of the Gazette, calling for a takeover of the Oklahoma City Public Schools. While I don’t have all the answers to remedy the problems of urban school districts, I do have enough of a filter to recognize a solution that would cause more problems than it would solve.

Bleakley does a good job tracing some issues that have impacting the district since the 70s – desegregation, then white flight, and for many years, an aging infrastructure. But he misses the mark on others. Collective bargaining is not to blame for low student performance. The OKC Schools Foundation was never intended to be an accountability task force.

For some reason, he doesn’t mention poverty and the dissolution of families at all. Nor does he discuss the fact that budget cuts have forced the district to cut back on instructional staff and student support (such as counselors, tutors, and social workers).

Rather than admit to the obvious impact of these issues, Bleakley suggests dissolving the existing bureaucracy and replacing it with a more complicated one. In the end, the State Department of Education would have more oversight of the district. Unfortunately, the last two years have shown that the current occupants at the SDE lack an understanding of how school districts function. They change their instructions to school with regularity, and they fail to adhere to their own adopted administrative rules. They believe in reinventing government on the fly, and their model for education is even less well-constructed.

Adding to this disconnect, Bleakley trots out OKCPS’s D on the School Report Card as evidence that “nothing’s happening here!” Giving this flawed product of a process born of subterfuge and dubious math any credence at all is not the highlight of a strong rhetorical argument. The SDE, legislature, and governor have all stacked the deck against schools and districts serving high numbers of students in poverty. Even leaders in affluent districts agree with this. Can OKCPS do better? Absolutely. Is the report card an indicator of this? Absolutely not.

Unfortunately, some writers are more taken to conflate the crisis with statements such as this:

Thousands of lives have been diminished, if not ruined, by depriving its students of a meaningful education. Lacking the social and economic potential that education provides, most are challenged to become good parents, workers, and citizens.

As of 2011, 85 percent of students in OKCPS were served by the free and reduced lunch program. The state average was 61 percent. As of 2010, 45 percent of the students in the district came from single-parent families (or a non-parent home situation). The state average was 32 percent. The mobility rate is 12.5 percent. That means that one in every eight students is either leaving or entering a new classroom at some point after school starts. This is disruptive for the learning process for all students. The people who spend every day working with these kids know how hard the job is. Publishers do not.

Bleakley knows – as we all do – that urban schools struggle to recruit and retain the best teachers. While OKCPS can have a higher salary scale than many surrounding districts, it is not enough of a bump to incentivize the most talented people to stay. That is why the average experience of teachers in the district is two years lower than the state average.

Bleakley’s editorial has gone viral today. The usual suspects have been sharing it all over Twitter and Facebook. These are the people who want to dissolve the school districts serving our most vulnerable populations and give students the right to apply to “Schools of Choice.” What they all fail to mention is that the school you choose doesn’t have to choose you back. That will leave the public schools as the last refuge for all the students nobody else would have.

This is not the best thing for children. These cynical reformers know it. It’s important that everybody else does too. I’ll never have the readership of the Gazette, and surely I’ll not be the writer with the most thorough, articulate rebuttal to this half-cocked proposal. But if you care about the children of Oklahoma as much as public education’s critics claim to, you have an obligation to help that message reach as many people as possible.

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