Oklahoma’s Poor Need Much More than Charters Can Give

charter school oklahoma city
What was once Harding High School in Okla. City Public Schools is now Harding Charter Preparatory High School, authorized by the district.| Photo by Brett Dickerson

There has been a surge of anti-public-education talk in the past several weeks. Why?

Legislation to allow the governments of Tulsa and Oklahoma City to establish their own charter schools has come back to life as an amendment to another bill in the Oklahoma Legislature.

And the bill’s promoters want to make their case that the two biggest urban districts in the state are horrible, dystopic places that deserve abandonment instead of support and renewal.

OKC and Tulsa governments could start charters on their own – So much for worry about “government schools”

HB 1696 contains modified language that was once in SB 68 which could not get enough support in the House. It was “laid over” by its author, Senator David Holt (R-Oklahoma City), so that the language could be put into another bill later.

Now that the associations for school boards and school administrators have negotiated to allow for charter schools to be everywhere in Oklahoma under illusory control by their local districts, this bill would modify what was just signed by the governor.

If HB 1696 passes, the city governments of Tulsa and Oklahoma City could establish their own charter schools independent of their respective school districts.  The only recourse of those districts would be to call for an expensive public “yes/no” special election on each charter establishment being proposed.

How many times do we think that will happen until the public becomes weary of the special elections? You know the answer. And that’s the plan.

An opinion piece promoting the bill in today’s edition of The Oklahoman argued that “the charter model has been highly successful in Oklahoma City” as they failed to mention that all of the charters they cite in OKC have been authorized by OKCPS.

Isn’t it astonishing that those who get into such a froth about “government schools” are excited to establish…government schools? The only difference is that these government schools will not be controlled directly by democratically elected boards, only appointed boards of the mayors.

The tail that wags the dog: realtors

This idea is being pushed mostly by Oklahoma City senators and representatives who are doing the bidding of the realtors and the Chambers of Commerce.

Both cities, but especially Oklahoma City, have plans to build golden centers that would contain high-end housing for people with considerable means and with tax payer money in the form of tax increment finance districts.

Some of my sources say that downtown realtors are worried right now. Unless they can provide essentially segregated schools where the children of the rich could go to school without having to come into contact with the poor, their big investments might not work.

The tell in The Oklahoman‘s opinion piece is pretty obvious:

Adding more charter schools could make the city a more attractive place for young professionals with children while also better serving low-income families.

So how else would massive charterization of OKC serve both groups unless they intended for those groups to go to separate schools? This is the prime issue.

The arguments, provided by big money think tanks, are that these charters would help poor children who are trapped in their supposedly dystopian urban school districts.

The children of the poor often show their broken world  without any filters. That is shocking and disturbing to those without any experience of dealing with the poor.

My post School Choice and the Fear of “Those People” dealt directly with that dynamic.

But, to tar Oklahoma City and Tulsa Public Schools and portray them as dystopian is shameful race baiting and class prejudice, with little but anecdotal evidence to offer.

As I argued in Bait and Switch with “Parent Choice”? this argument is simply intended to allow the rich to segregate their children from the rest of society.

If they are in public schools with geographic collection areas, their children might learn that all is not well with the world and our society which has given them privileges that they won’t even acknowledge.

Actual lives of the poor

Arguments in favor of establishing charters in large cities heavily populated with the poor miss one critical reality: The poor move around a lot due to their plight. And that means that their children move from school to school several times during just one school year.

This is not just restlessness. It’s not just to skip out on the rent. It’s because for the poor, one missed paycheck can result in a cascade of financial problems that results in a necessity to move to someplace else.

In many cases it’s moving in with other extended family members. In some other cases it’s moving to a poorer neighborhood than the one they had to leave.

If children of poor parents move within a large, well-organized district with a consistent discipline code, curriculum, and bus system, then they will not lose as much in each move. They will have a good chance at keeping up with their peers.

Moving in the middle of the school year does much more harm, however, If they have to enter a whole new school with a completely different curriculum, with no real transportation plan as with most charter schools.

Rob Neu, in his first year as Superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools had this to say recently in a report that he made to their Board:

Many of our students move from school to school because of unstable living arrangements. Such moves have an adverse impact on their learning. We can’t change how often our students are uprooted, but it is our responsibility to ensure a guaranteed and viable curriculum at every school. We know our kids move. We have to make sure their curriculum does not change with their address.

The children of the poor need continuity that they will not have in their family lives. It isn’t just in recent years, but as long as there have been public schools there have been students who came to a stable school with teachers who cared when everything around them was harsh and even deadly.

But this has been taken away over the years by racial prejudice, opportunism of realtors who saw white flight as a way to wealth, and legislators whose only goal was to lower taxes of their rich donors.

A place for “serious students” or just students of a certain class of people?

Except for Catholic schools, which are run for missional purposes first, charter and private schools pride themselves on being quick to remove students perceived to be disruptive for the sake of the “serious students”.

I have personally known two teachers who taught at the high school in Oklahoma City Schools that received most of the “kick-outs” from one of the touted prep charters already existing in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

And according to them, those students and their parents who were sent out and back to their collection area high school had little understanding of why that happened.

Were they told? Probably. Technically. Lawyer-ly.

Were they given time to actually understand and adjust? That’s a big, very live question.

It’s a live question any time that charters kick out students first and ask questions only when they have to.

The poor are the least of the concerns for those who are pushing this bill right now. It’s actually about whether or not realtors will once again, as in the days of “white flight” to the suburbs, have what they define as “good schools” that will help them sell their properties at a premium.

Other reasons being given are simply a smoke screen.