Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Choice, diversity in Oklahoma's future

Someone recently asked me what I thought education in Oklahoma would look like, say, 25 years from now.

My short answer is: I don’t know. The God of history—”Divine Providence,” in the words of the signers of the Declaration—stands outside of history and directs it as he sees fit. But there’s one thing I do know: it makes no sense to continue doing what we’re doing.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which gives Oklahoma’s school system an F, our public schools are among the worst in the nation—and this in a nation whose schools are among the worst in the industrialized world. As Oklahoma begins its second century, it’s time to move away from our antiquated, heavily unionized, government-owned-and-operated monopoly. We should seek to restore the American tradition of educational freedom and consumer choice, a tradition which predates and lasted longer than our current practice of delivering education through a monopoly.

There’s good reason to believe we’ll move in that direction in the next 25 years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are now 23 school choice programs (mostly vouchers and tax credits) in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. As more and more states embrace school choice, it’s reasonable to believe Oklahoma will too.

Even our Democrat state school superintendent has said that more school choice is likely in Oklahoma. “School choice is a reality, and we should just get used to it,” Sandy Garrett said in 2001. “We have a lot of choice already in Oklahoma, but I think we’ll have some sort of a tax credit or something something to let children go wherever their parents want.”

In a recent advertisement in the state’s largest newspaper, an open letter signed by 147 Oklahomans, the signatories declared that “Oklahoma will be, in its second century, a more diverse state than ever.” This is true, and school choice is all about celebrating diversity. Parents and children should have the freedom and the ability to choose from charter schools that emphasize core knowledge, specialty schools that focus on the arts, magnet schools that specialize in science and engineering, and dozens more.

They should be free to choose evangelical Christian schools which equip children to love the Lord their God with all their minds. Or Jewish day schools which provide a rigorous, faith-based education and help preserve Jewish continuity. Or Catholic schools, like Sacred Heart in south Oklahoma City, which provide a safe, nurturing environment. As one Hispanic youngster put it, “My parents transferred us to Sacred Heart because they wanted us to be safe from drug and gang issues. They always wanted us to be able to listen to Christ by going to a Catholic school.”

Oklahoma’s private schools “by definition help fulfill the ideal of pluralism in American education,” says the Council for American Private Education. “They serve diverse populations, and are multiethnic and multicultural.”

“School choice continues to spread, unstoppable now, despite the best efforts of its foes to contain it,” education scholar Chester Finn said last year. Look for it to spread in Oklahoma.

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