by Renee Porter
Education is the cornerstone of a productive society and a prerequisite for fulfilling, happy and independent lives.
It is because education is so closely tied with our well-being that it should sadden and alarm all of us to see so many of our schools, and with them our children, falling behind.
The commonly named culprit is lack of funding, and there is of course some truth to that argument, especially in light of this year’s budget crisis. Schools can do more with more resources. Better pay for teachers, for instance, allows schools to attract and retain better teachers. Educators are right to be alarmed by the effect that budget cuts may have on their profession, our schools and our students.
Overshadowed by this debate, however, is a long-standing problem that is equally as important as funding: the tenets that guide our thinking about education and our implementation of education policy have grown stale, outdated, and unhelpful.
Consider some of our assumptions about schooling:
“Every city, town and hamlet must have a local public school to serve as the primary educational establishment for local children.”
Why? This made perfect sense when Oklahoma’s public schools were created in the 1890s. Long commutes were very difficult in horse drawn carriages. Today we have mini-vans. If driving to the next town (or the other side of town) allows a child to have access to school that better serves his or her needs, then both state and local governments should act as a facilitator of that decision.
Instead, we throw up barriers to transferring, and railroad students into the school nearest to them. That does a great disservice to our children.
“All public schools can and should serve all types of students equally.”
This sounds like a good idea: equal services for everyone. In reality, it asks our public schools to do the impossible. Every public school in this state cannot provide an equal level of attention to: a child with autism, a prodigy violinist, a student who does not yet speak English, and an English speaking student who desperately wants to learn French. By asking our schools to do this, we are setting them up for failure, which means we are setting up our students for failure.
The solution is to grant far more flexibility and ability to specialize than our public schools currently have. Especially in large metros like Oklahoma City and Tulsa, there is nothing wrong with one school specializing in English Language Learner courses, another going above and beyond in music and theater, and a third specializing in working with students with developmental disabilities. Our goal should be to ensure every student has access to these services, which we can do with easier transfer policies, better busing services, and more readily available information for parents about our schools.
“Public education dollars should be controlled by a state bureaucracy, rather than following individual students.”
When a driver goes through a toll booth, their tax dollars are collected and used to fund maintenance and improvements for the specific road they are driving on.
When you allocate tax dollars for children, however, their dollars are pumped into and swallowed by a massive bureaucracy.
Allowing tax dollars to follow children – through programs like Educational Savings Accounts – empowers parents, increases educational choices, and increases accountability. Parents should be allowed to direct their education tax dollars towards any educational experience they feel is best for their children – whether it’s a public school, a private school, or even a private tutor.
Critics say this “siphons off” money from public education. The reality is that it would recalibrate our expectations of public education from a service that exists to support schools and offer employment to adults into a service that exists to educate children, as it is clearly meant to be and should be.
The ideas and policies challenging the status quo of our current educational structure are known collectively as “School Choice.” At ChoiceMatters for Kids, we are working to broaden the options available to parents and children, modernize the way we think about education, and ultimately improve outcomes.
All of that starts with questioning our assumptions about how we currently educate our children.
NOTE: Renee Porter is the Director of ChoiceMatters for Kids, based in Oklahoma City.