The 1889 Institute has repeatedly expounded on the merits of educational choice. School choice lies at the heart of providing individual children with a high-quality education, and Oklahoma could use more of it. With the myriad of programs that have proven successful throughout the country, Oklahoma needs to take an all-of-the-above approach to education to empower parents. The necessity of educational choice is particularly evident when you see students as unique individuals with unique talents and needs. 

Every child learns at least a little differently from every other child. Thus, it is far more likely that every child will succeed when families can avail themselves of different educational environments. Two children, coming from the same family, living in the same house, with the same economic means and opportunities, still demonstrate different propensities, proficiencies, and instructional preferences. The close parent-child relationship gives parents a unique understanding of their child. This unique knowledge equips them to make the best decisions in their child’s education based on a more holistic experience. Therefore, to better improve educational outcomes, it is incumbent upon the state to empower parents to decide how and where to educate their children.         

Recently, the Center for Education Reform published its Parent Power! Index (“Index”). The index surveys states across the country to gauge how well they empower parents to drive their children’s education. Based on the premise that states can realize high-quality educational opportunities for students only to the extent that parents are empowered to choose and given sufficient information to make a well-informed decision, schools are graded and ranked. The scoring looks at factors such as programs available to parents, teacher quality, personalized learning, innovation, state leadership, and educational data transparency. 

So, how did Oklahoma fare? With the oft-cited goal of “top ten,” Oklahoma nearly accomplished that goal in the Index, coming in at 11th place and earning a letter grade of “C.” While 11th place is commendable, there is undoubtedly room for improvement. Currently, sitting at the top of the Index in first place is the state of Arizona. To put the difference between first and 11th place into perspective, though, consider the experience of a family relocating to Oklahoma from Arizona.

Let’s take, for example, a family of four residing in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The children are at the threshold of beginning their educational journey – one about to begin preschool and the other about to start kindergarten. Additionally, the children have already demonstrated diverging preferences and proficiencies. One gravitates towards books and letters and will sit for hours attempting to read. The other won’t sit still and naturally gravitates toward numbers and has a gift for mechanics (evidenced by disassembled appliances and furniture).

Understanding their differences, the parents seek out schools that could benefit their children’s unique needs. Within a one-mile radius from their home, they find five elementary schools: a traditional public school, a public charter school, and three private schools.  Between the five schools, this family will have the choice between three different educational philosophies. While their neighborhood offers significant variety already, the farther the parents are willing to transport their children, the greater the variety.

Throughout the Phoenix metro area, parents can tailor their child’s education to their needs at schools founded on anything from classical education to agriculture and equine studies or even robotics. In addition to traditional public schools participating in a well-used open enrollment policy, Arizona can boast more than 550 public charter schools serving more than 213,000 students, as well as more than 460 private schools serving approximately 65,000 students.

Relocating to the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, the family will quickly find that such extensive choice is not available. A similar search for schools around their neighborhood concludes with a grand total of ONE (i.e., 1; uno; as in more than zero, but fewer than two) option – the traditional public school to which they were zoned. While the district school was not bad, it is unlikely to serve both of their children’s widely differing needs. Expand the search to the entire metropolitan area, their perceived choices expand – but only slightly. They find a private elementary school nearby with an incredibly exciting approach to education. However, like many families, private tuition was not in the budget. Their search also revealed several charter schools that showed great promise. Regrettably, living on the wrong side of the county or district lines prohibited the family from choosing these schools.   

There are approximately 30 charter schools across the state in Oklahoma – a far cry from the choices available to parents and students in Arizona. The result is that many options are unavailable or inaccessible, and parents’ ability to tailor the education received by their child is limited.

While the contrast seems stark, Oklahoma has the momentum necessary to achieve the meaningful change needed to empower parents. One of the categories in which Oklahoma outshines Arizona is state leadership. Strong leadership from Governor Kevin Stitt and his newly appointed Secretary of Education, Ryan Walters, can capitalize on Oklahoma’s momentum to allocate greater power to parents.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, there are a few things that Oklahoma might consider improving to empower parents and individualize education for students throughout the state. 

For example, the state can eliminate unnecessary, arbitrary geographical limitations. Students should be permitted to attend a public school (traditional or charter) with objectively determined capacity remaining. Schools could still have geographical preferences without prohibiting students who are willing to commute for their education. The quantity of choices provided by charter schools and liberal use of open enrollment in Arizona has driven innovation and focused on attracting and better serving students, particularly in the 21st Century. Oklahoma could also foster more significant growth by eliminating limitations on current charter authorization and allow for innovative sponsorship of charter schools – such as professional teacher charter schools policy currently being developed by the 1889 Institute. 

In a tech-driven, rapidly changing society, innovation among schools should be encouraged and supported. Additionally, with the advent of COVID-19, almost every school in the nation was forced to try something innovative. In this process, schools may have discovered some things that worked well and things that didn’t. As schools move forward, the state can grant schools relief from burdensome regulations that discourage innovation or prevent them from continuing a successful COVID-era practice they would like to continue. Oklahoma can look to states like Colorado and Utah as examples of ways to encourage and support innovation and mastery-based learning.

Finally, the way to truly empower parents is to control education spending. Oklahoma should give parents the power to direct the education funds generated by their child into courses, schools, programs, and services in the form of a universal ESA.

Parents possess an unparalleled knowledge of their individual children’s abilities and concern for their development. Ultimately, it is the parent’s duty to ensure that their children are educated and prepared to become productive members of society. It’s time that Oklahoma vests the power to direct the education of children where it belongs – in the hands of parents.

Brad Galbraith is the Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.