Politics: September 2003 Archives

Educational empowerment


I went to the monthly Tulsa County Republican Men's Club luncheon today. The group's name is a bit of a misnomer, since the crowd is close to half-female and there are regular attendees from other counties. The food is good, the speakers are usually interesting, and it's fun to catch up with the latest political gossip. With term limits going into effect next year, candidates are already lining up for next year's races. At today's lunch I saw Brian Crain, who is running for Senate 39 (incumbent Jerry Smith is term-limited); Pam Peterson, who is running for House 67 (incumbent Hopper Smith is leaving the House this year or next -- he plans to run for Senate 25, but he may be deployed overseas with the 45th Infantry, in which case he'll resign early, and a special election will be held); and Joan Hastings, former County Clerk and State Representative, who may be running for Senate 25 (incumbent Charles Ford is term-limited).

The topic of the day was education and the speakers were Union Schools Superintendent Cathy Burden, State Senator Charles Ford, and State Senator Scott Pruitt. Cathy Burden called for administrative consolidation of our more than 500 school districts and said it was hard to find teachers to meet the needs of that growing district. Sen. Ford gave a brief history of state funding for education, a system that has gone from locally-funded to one that is 75% state-funded, and which creates disincentives for local funding. Sen. Pruitt spoke of giving more control back to local districts, providing state funding and demanding results, but not dictating the methods to achieve results, thus empowering local administrators to make decisions.

Amidst all the talk of empowering administrators and tweaking funding formulae, talk of empowering taxpayers (or, in Educanto, "patrons" ) and parents was conspicuous by its absence, especially conspicuous in a Republican meeting. I got to ask the last question, and so I stood up, and said so.

We need patron empowerment. Our system of electing school boards is designed to discourage accountability to the voters. Board members in large districts like Tulsa serve four year terms, with one or two members elected each February. The filing period is in early December, during the Thanksgiving to Christmas rush; the election is the second Tuesday in February, which in even numbered years is one week after the municipal primary. Because of the staggered terms, there is no way for the electorate to dump the whole bunch at once, no matter how incompetent or unresponsive they are. The terms of office are far too long. Over time, a school board member tends to regard himself or herself as an ambassador representing the school administration to the community, rather than as the representative of taxpayers and parents, holding the administration accountable. An "us vs. them" mentality develops, with "us" being the administration and the board, and "them" being the unruly parents and taxpayers who have unreasonable expectations and are stingy, too.

My remedy is to have every district elect the entire school board every two years, during the normal election cycle. I didn't mention this, but I'd even favor partisan elections -- there are stark differences in educational philosophy and they generally fall along national party lines (something that isn't true with municipal issues). Sen. Ford said that the legislature voted to change the election dates back in the '80s, but the school districts applied pressure to change them back.

We also need parental empowerment, by which I mean genuine school choice -- the opportunity for more parents to choose private education for their children. I favor tuition tax credits and tax credits to donors to scholarship programs as ways to make alternative education affordable for more families without creating an entanglement between private schools and the state. Oklahoma is looking for ways to make itself attractive to energetic entrepreneurs, looking to attract and retain young people. As far as I am aware, no state has a statewide school choice program. Here is an opportunity for us to distinguish Oklahoma, make life better for families with school-aged children, and create a competitive environment that will help all schools improve.

I'm just amazed that none of the Republican legislators brought up the issue of school choice. It makes me worry that even if Republicans take over the legislature, they will content themselves with tinkering with this broken system, and placating the teachers' unions and the administrators' lobby. The point, after all, is not to prop up an existing way of doing things, but to educate children, whether in state-run schools, private schools, or at home.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Politics category from September 2003.

Politics: June 2003 is the previous archive.

Politics: October 2003 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Subscribe to feed Subscribe to this blog's feed:
[What is this?]