Monday, August 27, 2007

Greene, Winters address Oklahoma myths

In this month's issue of Perspective, Jay Greene and Marcus Winters correct seven misconceptions peddled by Oklahoma's education establishment.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A black market for school choice

[A version of this column by Brandon Dutcher appeared today in The Oklahoman.]

Another school year is under way, and I am reminded again that school choice is widespread in Oklahoma.

No, we don’t yet have the big enchilada — vouchers or tax credits — but we do have charter schools, magnet and specialty schools, interdistrict and intradistrict choice (albeit limited), privately funded K-12 vouchers, and more.

Heck, there’s even a black market for school choice. Some parents are so desperate to get a better education for their kids that they will lie about their place of residence.

Fortunately, the educrats have the situation under control. In August I drove by an Edmond middle school near my house and noticed that some modern-day George Wallaces had found a way to block the schoolhouse door: "MUST HAVE JUNE OR JULY UTILITY BILL," the sign proclaimed. "NO EXCEPTIONS."

Which brings us to the most common form of school choice in Oklahoma: real-estate-based school choice. Despite the higher home prices and property taxes in places like Edmond and Jenks, many people move there so their kids can attend the public schools. And we can’t let just anyone in, you understand.

If some poor inner-city girl, trapped in a violent, drug-infested school where she isn’t learning to read or do math, wants to attend this Edmond middle school, well, sorry. No exceptions.

Adding insult to injury, not only are many low-income kids trapped in bad schools, but their parents have to subsidize the school choices of the more affluent. You see, middle- and upper-income folks tend to itemize on their federal tax returns so they can get those juicy deductions for property taxes and mortgage interest. Many would have a hard time affording their homes if the federal income tax system didn’t favor them over their lower-income, non-itemizing brethren. School-choice litigator Clint Bolick calls this "the largest school choice program in the United States."

It’s no secret that parents want more choices. In July, I commissioned Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates (CHS) to ask 500 Oklahoma voters a simple question: "If you had a school-age child and were given a voucher or a tax credit that would cover tuition to any of the following, which would you personally choose for your child?"

Forty-nine percent of respondents statewide said they would choose a public school, while 43 percent said they would choose a private school. Ponder that. If Oklahoma parents were given a voucher or a tax credit, more than a quarter-million revenue units (children) in Oklahoma's public schools would head for the exits.

The demand for choice is even greater in Tulsa, where a full 55 percent of survey respondents said they would choose a private school, compared to 37 percent who would choose a public school. Earlier this year state Rep. Jabar Shumate (D-Tulsa) said, "I hear from my constituents all the time that they want more and better options for their children’s education." Apparently he wasn’t kidding.

Still, some folks don't want parents to have more and better options. In a recent letter to the editor published in The Oklahoman, Evelyn Walsh of Guthrie suggested that school choice is a bad idea because, well, the majority of Oklahomans might just choose a private school! After all, she pointed out, it’s unlikely that "people will opt for hamburger when T-bone steaks are available." Ouch. Not sure that’s the kind of defense the public-school establishment was looking for.

But it’s a telling comment nonetheless. People know what they know. The government-school monopoly leaves a lot to be desired; parents want more and better options. Which is why the teacher unions and their captive politicians have to do their own version of a George Wallace impersonation, blocking the schoolhouse door to keep the children in.

Yes, school choice is alive and well in Oklahoma — if you can afford it. Simply pay tuition to a private school, or buy a house near the public school of your choice.

If you can’t afford it, well, sorry. No exceptions.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Oklahoma City doctor finds her way home

[This article by Isabel Lyman appeared in the August 2005 issue of Perspective, published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.]

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: "Is this all?"

—Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

Since Betty Friedan’s polemic about the angst of understimulated suburban housewives was published in 1963, women, over the water cooler and at the play groups, have been pondering whether they can "have it all." Corporate America, government policy analysts, and family experts frequently chime in on this national conversation by offering opinions about biological clocks, daycare, flex-time, tax credits, postpartum depression, self-esteem, and every other angle devoted to figuring out how the fairer sex can juggle the demands of hearth and high-octane outside-the-home pursuits.

It’s almost an anachronistic debate to have in the 21st century, since the glass ceiling on limitations continues to be shattered by a never-ending pool of accomplished women. The current crop of A-list "it" girls includes Secretary of State Condi Rice, race-car driver Danica Patrick, columnist Ann Coulter, talk-hostess Oprah Winfrey, golfer Michelle Wie, and two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank. Unlike the grim, bra-burning feminists of Friedan’s day, these ladies are stylish and photogenic.

But these famous babes don’t have babies, which is one reason why the "female question" remains relevant in 2005. Mothers still have to decide whether to bid adieu to big dreams to stay home and rock the cradle.

Which makes Jana Karim’s story such an intriguing one. Once upon a time she was the high-achieving career woman who had it all, but decided she really, really wanted her nanny’s job.

The 43-year-old blonde is also "Dr. Karim," a specialist in obstetrics/gynecology with a degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. After two decades in the medical profession, the good doctor had delivered thousands of babies and established a successful practice in metropolitan Oklahoma City. During that time she also wed her soul mate and bore three beautiful children.

Four and a half years ago, she chose to exchange the stethoscope and the bedside manner for the elementary school books and the chauffeuring detail. After retiring from her enviable job, Dr. Karim is now a stay-at-home mom who also homeschools her children, ages 11, 9, and 6.

Her saga begins with a couple of war stories about her dual, frequently complicated former life as a busy mother and physician. "I worked full time and then some," she recalls. "One time, I went three days without seeing the kids. That one tore me apart. (Another time) my oldest would be at the door crying, ‘Mommy, don’t go.’ That was really hard.

"But I enjoyed my work so much, and I loved my patients. I enjoyed it so much that I couldn’t see doing anything else. But God works on you."

A visitor quickly learns that a heart-to-heart conversation with Dr. Karim includes hearing how her Christian faith is the key that helped her answer the familiar, age-old question: "What is my purpose for being here?"

"I know that I wasn’t listening to God when He was telling me what I should do," she says. "In the last few years that I was working, I just knew that I was supposed to be doing something different, as we had things happen. (For instance) we bought a new house that was supposed to be the dream house, but it was infested with fleas."

She smiles at the memory, but the conversation returns to the serious.

"We realized we got caught up in the materialistic side of things—having the best cars, house, vacations—and we weren’t focusing on the spiritual side and ‘making yourself better for God’ side."

While Jana was working through her dark night of the soul (to use the memorable phrase associated with St. John of the Cross), another teachable moment occurred when her eldest child—then a second grader in a public school’s accelerated program—was confined to bed due to an illness. In helping her son with his schoolwork, Jana estimates it took less than an hour to get his work completed.

"I thought, ‘What is he doing with the rest of the time?’ I loved the school, but I realized there was so much more we could do."

She doesn’t recall how she initially heard about homeschooling. "I had met a few homeschoolers," she says. "The church that we were attending had a lot of homeschoolers. But I never really sat and talked with any of them. All I did was research it, and realized it was something I could do and all the benefits we could have from it."

Convinced that the teach-thine-own lifestyle was what she wanted to pursue wholeheartedly, Dr. Karim referenced Gregg Harris’s book The Christian Home School to help her make her case to her lawyer spouse, Andrew Karim. He initially thought her alternative education idea was "nuts," but has since become an enthusiastic supporter.

But embarking on such a lifestyle change—which meant the Karims also had to reinvent themselves as a one-income family—wasn’t easy. Then there was the emotional transition, and the accompanying reaction, to no longer working as a doctor. She says the adjustment took about a year.

"My ego was not being fed at all anymore and that was a very difficult time. I still have my moments when I’m thinking ‘nobody knows me anymore.’ Well, then I think, ‘God knows me.’ And that’s all that matters. My family knows me, and my relationships are so much better than they ever were."

"A few (of my patients) were angry at me for leaving," she says. "Many of them were sad to see me go, but they understood. I had people, who didn’t know me and only heard what I had done, say, ‘What a waste.’"

Even Dr. Karim’s own mother—who brags about her grandchildren as home scholars—was skeptical. She thought her daughter was throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be independent and make a difference.

"It’s been hard for her to watch," Dr. Karim says. "She, and all the people of her generation, feel like they worked so hard to get women’s rights."

Christine Field, of Wheaton, Illinois, the author of six books about child rearing, adoption, and home education, has traveled down this road. For eight years, she practiced law and had "the typical dual-career marriage." (Mark Field, her husband, is Wheaton’s chief of police.)

In 1991, Mrs. Field left the work force to homeschool her brood. She has four children—three are adopted and one is biological.

"Sure it can be more glamorous to go to an office and be called ‘Ma’am’ than just be a middle-aged woman in the suburbs," she candidly remarks.

But she decided that "sub-contracting the children rearing" wasn’t for her. The prolific writer has commented honestly and cheerfully about her new life. In Home School Digest magazine, she wrote, "My house unapologetically reflects the fact that children are in residence. From the toys on the lawn to the projects scattered around the house, a visitor can readily see that this is a place of creativity and learning."

Judging by the styrofoam castle in the computer room, the activity of lively dogs, and the sound of children playing in the backyard, it’s clear there is plenty of creativity and learning going on at the Karim homestead in a leafy Oklahoma City neighborhood.

What are the family’s days typically like? "School starts by 9:15 a.m. and sometimes goes until 8:00 at night," Dr. Karim says. "It just depends on what we’re doing. We do some things that take us out of the house, so that our book work doesn’t get done until later. Certain things have to be done early in the day, like piano lessons, or they don’t get done. Math has to be done early in the day. We have Bible every day. In the afternoon, we have more time for our history and science."

Science has involved such atypical projects as dissecting a rabbit and attending space camp. Physical activities include swimming, tennis, golf, and participating in a homeschool PE class. Friday night is family movie time. The three children also own tool belts and tool boxes for hands-on projects, like building a shed with Dad. Dr. Karim describes her curriculum as "classical Christian" and has used the popular book The Well-Trained Mind as a resource, but deviates from the script if need be.

"(Initially) we used the library computer. We didn’t even have a computer in our home for a long time," Dr. Karim explains of her homeschooling-on-a-shoestring days.

And what about socialization? She says that finding positive social outlets for her children is a breeze. "It’s not ‘how do you get socialized?’ she says, but rather ‘how do you stop being pulled in different directions?’"

The only complaint her crew has recently aired involves not getting to hop on a school bus, but there was a solution to that one. They ride the Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy Stores bus, which is painted like a cow, when they require a transportation and field-trip fix.

And Dr. Karim couldn’t be more pleased about the Sooner State’s laid-back homeschooling laws. "You only have a few absolute requirements. You don’t have to go through testing; you don’t have to submit a curriculum to the public schools. I think Oklahoma is great for homeschoolers."

As for that nagging issue about whether women can have it all, Dr. Karim has an answer: "I believe you can have it all, but you don’t get it all at the same time. I had my major career, my fun, and my money-making and what I thought would please me, first. I had my children, in there, which I don’t know if that was the right way to do it, because I lost a lot of their early years. But now I’m home with my children, the second phase of my life."

She continues, "I’m a big proponent of being home with your children, not only when they’re really young, but when they’re in the middle school and high school ages, because I think that’s where a lot of trouble starts. I would rather have my influence and family influence rather than that of peers."

Though Dr. Karim plans on homeschooling her children through their teen years, she is also going to keep up her medical license. But she has no regrets about this phase.

"I can’t think of any negatives except that we don’t have as much money as we used to, but at this point, we don’t care. That extra money took us into wanting more."

For now, she has even figured out God’s purpose for her life. "My greatest role in life is to be at home with my children and bring them up in the way that they should be and make sure they are godly children. Why in the world would I entrust that to anybody else?"

Friday, August 10, 2007

Tulsa parents 'want more and better options'

Earlier this year during his heroic advocacy for charter schools, state Rep. Jabar Shumate (D-Tulsa) said, "I hear from my constituents all the time that they want more and better options for their children's education."

New survey data bear this out. Last month I commissioned the polling firm Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates to ask 500 Oklahoma voters: "If you had a school-age child and were given a voucher or a tax credit that would cover tuition to any of the following, which would you personally choose for your child?" Forty-nine percent of respondents statewide said they would choose a public school, while 43 percent said they would choose a private school.

Interestingly, however, among survey respondents in Tulsa County, 55 percent said they would choose a private school, while only 37 percent said they would choose a public school. That's a stunning rebuke of Tulsa's government-run schools. Policy-makers should take notice and respond by giving parents more choices.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Education 'crisis' is real

In this August 4, 2006 column in The Oklahoman, I agree with the state's largest school-employee labor union that education in Oklahoma has reached "a crisis state." But it's not a funding crisis.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

School choice for me, but not for thee

[This column by Brandon Dutcher appeared January 22, 2003 in The Oklahoman.]

Let us now speak highly of Democrats.

I’m talking about prominent Democrats who understand that parents have a duty to provide the best possible education for their children, and who exercise school choice in order to perform that duty.

For example, you may recall that the Clintons and the Gores sent their own children to elite private schools. Same with multimillionaire politicians like Ted Kennedy and John D. Rockefeller. And they should be applauded. Parents should choose the safest and best schools for their children, whether those schools are public or private.

Closer to home, the chairman of the Oklahoma City school board (of all people) exercises school choice. The Oklahoman reported last August 25 of this prominent corporate executive that “both his children attend private schools — a decision he said his family believes is the best educational choice for their children.” Hooray for educational choice.

Consider also the lively and loquacious liberal on the public-affairs talk show “FlashPoint.” He too is a wealthy Democrat who has exercised choice for his own progeny.

And consider our new governor, who’s going to spend the next four to eight years in public housing on Oklahoma City’s northeast side. Do you think he’s going to sit idly by while the government assigns his children to an elementary school with woeful test scores, a middle school which issued 524 out-of-school suspensions in the 2000-01 school year, and a high school where the average ACT score is 15.4? The governor cannot be blamed — indeed he should be commended — for making another choice, even if it is simply choosing different public schools.

“Parents have a fundamental right — written into the various international covenants protecting human rights — to choose the schooling that will shape their children’s understanding of the world,” says Boston University education professor Charles L. Glenn. “But a right isn’t really a right if it can’t be exercised.”

A new poll gives parents reason for optimism. Conducted during American Education Week in November by the University of Oklahoma Survey Research Center in cooperation with Wilson Research Strategies, the poll shows that more than six in ten Oklahomans (61 percent) support giving parents tax breaks, or credits, which would allow them to send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice.

School choice for the rich and powerful is a nice first step, but it’s not good enough. Liberal activist Martin Luther King III, who favors education tax credits, put it best: “We basically have one supplier, the public education system, and it has become a huge bureaucracy. This bureaucracy has to be challenged. Fairness demands that every child, not just the rich, has access to an education that will help them achieve their dreams.”