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Thompson: Oklahoma Education Battles Are Worthy of National Attention

This is a fascinating time for Oklahoma schools. As school funding was cut by more than 20% over the last five years, and in the face of a $610 million state budget shortfall, out-of-state corporate reformers, ranging from the American Federation for Children and ALEC to the Parent Revolution, have stepped up their attacks on traditional public schools. The most noteworthy assaults include the secretive local effort to cut funding for Oklahoma City Public Schools to pay for tax breaks for the downtown corporate elites, and the now-defeated state voucher bill.

On the other hand, a grass roots rebellion by parents against high-stakes testing swept out the former Chief for Change Janet Baressi. Now, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has rebuilt the partnerships with professional educators, started a public dialogue, and taken the first steps towards ending the test, sort, and punish policies that have been wrecking our schools.

A growing body of education bloggers along with innovative media outlets like the Red Dirt Report and Oklahoma Watch, as well as more Old School progressive institutions such as the Oklahoma Observer, the Oklahoma Gazette, and the Oklahoma Policy Institute, are publicizing the facts that, previously, the conservative press never deemed fit to print.

This week, the venerable Oklahoma Observer, under its masthead which promises to “Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable,” published an email informing Oklahoma City staff about SB 68 which had quietly passed the state Senate. (Scroll to the bottom of the post to read the memo.) It would allow Oklahoma City and Tulsa to unilaterally authorize charters. Republican Sen. David Holt emailed, “I wanted to give you a brief heads-up on a bill that passed the Senate today that has flown a bit under the radar, and that’s partly by design. But, the progress it is making might eventually be noticed, and I want you to hear from me what is intended. If it becomes law, it is a game changer for our city.”

Holt then explained, “Here at the Capitol, I have not portrayed the bill as a request bill, which of course it is not. I have told my colleagues it is important that OKC not publicly ask for the bill, as that may cause tension in the relationship with OKCPS.”

The rationale for this secretive effort to allow the city to compete with the school system is, “You meet with OKCPS, and they promise to do better, but you have a different perspective than OKCPS. They want their current school sites to succeed, and that’s a worthy goal, but that is the extent of their ambition.”

But, the Red Dirt Report’s Brett Dickerson reports that City Councilman Dr. Ed Shadid broke with tradition and closed the latest city council meeting with the complaint that “the council has an above board legislative agenda where they give input on what kinds of legislation they might consider to be important, but the charter schools idea had never come up in those discussions. 'We’ve never talked about this before. I’ve never heard privately or here at the horseshoe talking about Oklahoma City or Tulsa wanting the ability to issue charter schools.'”

Shadid also took the opportunity to protest the below-the-radar TIF (tax increment finance) effort to divert funds away from the school system. The Northside city councilman said, “I wish if the legislature was really interested in saving schools they would look at the incredible diversion of what is tens and hundreds of millions of dollars away from the schools and what impact that has on schools.”  

Shadid (the cousin of the late Anthony Shadid) is a visionary, an example of the type of urban expert who understands what it takes to transform Oklahoma City from a cow town to 21st century greatness. So, I expected such a statement from him.

I would have been disappointed if veteran Southside Councilman Pete White remained silent. White is the type of old-fashioned politician whose decency has helped keep Oklahoma from becoming Mississippi. But, I was not.

White said that “he and Councilman Pat Ryan have met extensively over the last three years with Oklahoma City Public Schools leaders to find better ways for that district and Oklahoma City to work together for stronger schools.” He criticized the end run around the OKCPS. “'I think that it destroys the relationship that Pat and I have tried to build up over the last three years,’ White said. ‘I think that it is very destructive to try to set up a situation where we could go around them and do something that I can tell you right now they don’t believe is the panacea for education.’”

In a fitting conclusion, Dickerson reports:

White went on to criticize the legislature for interfering with, and "trying to run" democratically elected city governments, county governments, and school boards. "You need to let the local elected officials run what they were elected to do," he said. White closed his remarks by saying he wanted to go on the record and say “this crosses the line. I think it’s time that we, as a body or at least us as individuals, stand up and say that we’ve had enough.”

My gut tells me that Oklahomans are ready to start paying taxes, and to support public education and our other basic services. I believe that corporate elites are doubling down and ramming their secret plans through because they sense that this is their last chance to get their agenda passed.  I believe that a combination of old-fashioned Okie neighborliness and the new generation of Millennials who are settling in Oklahoma City are laying the foundation for a new frontier. I know the story will be fascinating. Stay tuned.-JT (@drjohnthompson)


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