Much ado has been made about the passage of HB 2074, which expands the Open Transfer Act – allowing children to more easily transfer from one school or district to another. While it isn’t perfect and leaves room for bureaucratic gamesmanship, I am happy to see a move toward increased student mobility. In the world of parent empowerment and school choice, expanding transferability is a good but small first step. Regrettably, the options available to a majority of parents remain severely limited.
Much of the state is still legally and culturally antagonistic to parental control and educational choice. During a recent conversation, I mentioned that my wife and I were trying to find a school for our soon-to-be kindergarteners. We were informed that the schools in the area were “good,” something we are frequently told even though school report cards do not support this claim. I then stated that I was hoping to set up some tours of the local schools and classrooms to get a better feel for the campus as well as what was being taught and how. The response? Laughter. Apparently, that does not happen.
The complacency and lack of transparency are concerning to me as a parent, a resident, and a policy guy. Among state leaders, district and school administrators, and even the general public, there seems to be general satisfaction with the current public education monopoly with no genuine desire to improve. Let me be clear, by no means am I attempting to disparage the good, hardworking teachers who focus on our children day in and day out. However, I am criticizing a system that prioritizes funding ineffective bureaucracies over parents and children as if somehow increasing funding to an already bloated establishment will magically improve outcomes for kids.
State leaders need to think long and hard about realistically defining the public good being offered. Is it an educational system? Or is it education? There is a big difference between the two. I would hope everyone can agree that providing an education is, or should be, the focus of policymakers. If state leaders can agree on this, then there is no argument against a pluralistic system. While some competition would exist between providers, ultimately, a market-based system cooperates to deliver an education suited to individual students’ needs. With genuinely varied educational options, parents can find a school that helps their students master essential subjects while keeping them interested and engaged.
So, what can be done to begin realizing such educational pluralism? The 1889 Institute has already recommended numerous policies that could improve Oklahoma’s educational environment. A few of these include:
- Funding the education of students, not systems and bureaucracies, and empowering parents to direct money where that child can be best educated through universal education scholarship accounts (ESA);
- Liberalizing charter school laws to allow as many to open as the market demands and allowing them to serve as many students as they can regardless of geographic boundaries;
- Recognizing teachers as professionals by allowing them to open an educational practice—much the same way that doctors or lawyers would open a private practice—that would be publicly funded like charter schools; and
- Encouraging as many traditional public schools as possible to become conversion schools, taking advantage of increased flexibility to implement innovative education models such as early-college high schools, personalized learning, micro-schools, Montessori-style programs, and many others.
Additionally, even if parents are stuck with minimal mobility within the current monopolized system, a little transparency could help parents become savvy consumers. How much of the money appropriated to a school makes it to the classroom? What curricula are schools using? What is their philosophical approach to education? Each of these points of information could be easily incorporated or accessed from every school’s website homepage. Additionally, schools could foster greater parental involvement by giving them a look into the school’s operations and classroom culture, including by offering or soliciting parent tours. Parents are entrusting the education of their child to a school for several hours a day – the least a school can do is provide them with insight into their methods and what expertise they offer to merit a parent’s trust.
To preempt the complaint that such transparency would overly burden a school, I would encourage creative problem solving. I have seen it done, and students did it. At one school I visited (a Reggio, project-based, PK-12 school in Florida), the onsite preschool needed a new promotional video. The high school media arts class took on the project. The students did everything from development to post-production and distribution. They consulted with the preschool administration, conducted a site visit, interacted with the preschoolers, created a budget, and sent pseudo invoices to the preschool. They planned, produced, edited, and distributed the video. Not only was this a practical educational experience for the students, but, in the end, it resulted in a product that the preschool uses. As an aside, this school happened to be a private school that had a large number of ESA students on its roll book.
Competition among education providers ultimately produces a better service. Competing to attract and retain students will create an incentive for schools to provide an education that parents and students want and need and employers value. It will also help develop a variety of services that capture different corners of the educational market. That can mean schools that specialize in specific learning disabilities; social-emotional learning; classical education; or blended, project-based, or personalized learning. You name it, if there is a market for it, a genuinely open educational environment will help create it.
So, yes. Pluralism in education will foster competition. However, it ultimately cooperates to deemphasize the system and its bureaucratic beneficiaries and prioritize students’ education. Oklahoma needs bold action by bold leaders to create an environment rich with choice. If West Virginia can do it, so can we.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.