Friday, February 1, 2008

Opportunities and blessings in school choice

[This article by Patrick B. McGuigan appears in the February 2008 issue of Perspective, published by OCPA.]

During last year's legislative session, with his passionate advocacy of Oklahoma's charter schools and co-sponsorship of a bill to make it easier to support such institutions, Tulsa Democrat Rep. Jabar Shumate drew a lot of attention. Some of it was favorable, some of it highly critical from certain public school advocates.

In a recent interview, he explained his motivations for pushing the new charter law, which he described as "a great opportunity and a blessing in so many ways." Shumate said, "My political mentor and dear friend, David Boren, always modeled for me ways to find the middle ground, to work together with others for the common good. I watched him as a student, then as an employee of his at the University of Oklahoma."

Shumate reflected, "I have always based my politics, my work in public life, on working from the middle. This issue was a chance to do that, to make that real. Both Democrats and Republicans, in my experience, want strong education. I applaud my Republican friends for what they've done in the charter schools area. I must say I have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies in politics. I am results-oriented.

"As I looked at this issue in terms of my district, I saw charter schools where the lights are on, when children are learning and where they are safe. I was not afraid at all of fighting for those kids and those schools. I saw too many children in neighborhoods in Tulsa, and elsewhere today, who are going to schools that were not doing them any good. They are not doing those kids any justice, any good in terms of reaching their potential, of finding all their options, of achieving what they can achieve."

For these reasons, he said, "Honestly, defending charter schools and fighting for that bill last year was a no-brainer for me. It was the right kind of issue for my people in Tulsa, and it was a way to put into motion the things that David Boren taught me."

Rep. Shumate said he was disappointed and upset with the decision of the Tulsa Public Schools system to file a lawsuit challenging that new public charter schools law. He called the litigation "very sad. First of all, the law we passed is perfectly good law. It will withstand this legal challenge. In some ways, this lawsuit will hurt charter schools for a time, because it's a scare tactic and we'll be dealing with question marks about these schools. That's not good. This is the epitome of a frivolous lawsuit. It is ludicrous and ridiculous."

"The folks that lose out are the kids," Shumate continued. "With this lawsuit by the Tulsa Public Schools, there is a law firm that will make a lot of money. The district's position is one-sided. They're acting in a vacuum and doing this simply because they can. The lawsuit will take money away from curriculum enhancement, from teacher training, from resources and research that could help our kids.

"By definition, the charter school bill is a middle ground, it is a compromise among all of us who worked for it. I think it's a sad day to look at the lawsuit that was filed. The bill would not have passed, it could never have become law without compromise. The district is turning away from that compromise, they have no broad approach to the issue. This is crying sour grapes, for no reason. It was a bill—something everyone could live with. In the end, it will be upheld."

I asked Shumate why, if the focus in education policy should be on children, it is various systems that get most of the attention and time in public discussion and debate. He answered, "That is an excellent question. In educational systems, you have a large fight, you have large fights over dollars. When it's about dollars, and it's about taxpayer dollars, you get into politics."

When that happens, he said, "People resort to name-calling and fall into a mindset of 'I, me and mine.' They disregard or disconnect form what we should be about, which is the kids. A good example is what happened in Tulsa after our discussion and after the new law that I supported. We've got lawsuits over charters and a mindset among opponents of those schools, people who are saying, 'That's my money.'

"We don't think enough about why we have that money. It's not for us, it's not for systems or individuals, it's for the education of our children. Nobody thinks about this. When I hear Tulsa opponents of charter schools say that the charter schools are taking away 'our money,' I point out to them that they should be a lot more worried about Owasso or Jenks, where our kids have already gone."

If one reform other than additional money could be made to empower kids, parents, and schools in public education, I asked, what would that one reform be? Shumate answered, "From the perspective of my legislative district, I would put more power in the hands of principals. I would allow autonomy, strength and the ability to change things for the better at the individual school level."

He elaborated, "As for parents, they need and deserve autonomy. If they are given more power, more control over their lives and over the education of their children, they will have more incentive to get involved. ... I would promote site-based management to give more power to principals and greater support to community leaders and parents to take our schools forward."

Asked for his perspective on other, broader forms of school choice — vouchers, tax credits, and similar proposals — Rep. Shumate replied, "I'll be frank with you. This is a rough discussion, this issue. As we look at anything beyond charter schools, you almost get a brick wall put in front of you. I am at the point of studying options beyond charter schools. My dilemma is that I don't want to advance things that would lead kids to, in fact, leave our neighborhoods in Tulsa, and not be able to stay at schools there in their, in our, neighborhood."

He continued, "Would I have scads of kids leaving north Tulsa to go to Cascia Hall? If you don't have neighborhoods with schools, then neighborhoods will die. I want kids to be educated within the community, so I'm in a careful and 'studying' approach."

There is new legislation supportive of expanded school choice options, a bill introduced this session by state Sen. James Williamson, a Tulsa Republican, and state Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre, a Tulsa Democrat. Asked to comment on the legislation, Rep. Shumate replied, "I have heard of Sen. Williamson's bill and indeed we have discussed it. It has piqued my interest. My question to him was: 'How do we not get into a situation where we don't first empower kids to look within their district?' I want to create means to help kids get a good education within our community. I would be concerned if the first result was for kids to leave to get their education. But I am very interested in what Sen. Williamson is proposing."

Some voices, including former House Speaker Lance Cargill (R-Harrah), have called school choice "the greatest civil rights issue of our time." Asked to respond, Rep. Shumate replied with laughter: "Actually, I think that Lance Cargill stole that line from me, after I stole it from someone else!"

He continued, "We hope in our educational system to give young people the chance to reach their potential. When we think about civil rights, about a person's advancement and success in life, much of all that depends on the ability to be, and to do, your very best. You must have the confidence to reach up, youngsters need confidence to reach their potential.

"My response on that issue is that every time we help move a bit further on the march to justice, we have done something good. No one rewards mediocrity or failures. To me, charters and perhaps some other forms of school choice are a way to advance civil rights. Whether kids are rich or poor or have some other circumstance, it seems to me that choice can serve us. Educational freedom and choice represent a great civil rights challenge we face today."

OCPA research fellow Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is a certified teacher with classroom instructional experience in urban schools. He is also an editor at The City Sentinel in Oklahoma City.

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