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National School Choice Week

January 28, 2013

Prepare to see the PR machines in overdrive. School Choice Week is being celebrated around the country as state legislatures prepare to begin their annual work. In Oklahoma, this means 600 bills that relate to education in some way or another. I would try to provide a digest of them, but I try to keep my blog between 500 and 800 words. Most of these bills are likely to be consolidated or fall to the side completely.

The mythology of school choice goes something like this: students are too often trapped in struggling schools with no alternatives. If the state would only make their money portable, then any private school in the state would take those kids. Short of that, we can just reinvent public schools as charters. Or pull the parent trigger and make schools charters. Or allow any student who feels unsafe to transfer to any other school.

Last year, Superintendent Barresi issued a press release to mark this momentous occasion. In part, it read:

I am a huge advocate of a parent’s right to choose the education that best suits the needs of their children,” Barresi said. “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.

This is all empty rhetoric. For school choice to be the great equalizer, you have to have some guarantee that the school you choose would choose you back. Private schools don’t have to. Charter schools technically do, but as I’ve mentioned before, they can insert codicils into their policies that make it extremely difficult for special needs students or children needing remediation to attend. While Oklahoma charter schools still tend to be locally-sprung entities, there are national charter school chains making huge profits.

Nor are the results from private schools and charter schools comparable with those from public schools. In fact, with the private schools, there are no results. They don’t take the same tests. In our data-driven school climates, you would think there might be a push to find out if the potential recipients of vouchers are worth the cash. And charter schools actually did worse overall than the state on the A-F Report Cards.

If we pass a full-on voucher law, does that mean Casady and Holland Hall are just going to change their standards and let anybody in? Does it mean they’re going to expand to offer programs to twice as many students? Of course not. We don’t have private schools – elite or otherwise – in all parts of the state either. Vouchers would be a good boost for families already choosing private schools. In some locations, they would also be a small boost in revenue for schools trying to stay in business. They will not, however, increase equity in public education.

Readers of this blog tend to be independent thinkers. As you hear the various talking points this week, try to find the subtext. Whom will this proposal benefit? What part of the narrative is self-serving or incomplete?

The good news is that I’ll have blog material all week long.

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