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Freedom to choose education

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb speaking at the rally Wednesday.
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Supporters, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. rally at Capitol to promote school choice

OKLAHOMA CITY – Vernadette Williams of Oklahoma City said the public school system failed her special needs child.

She said her son’s teacher struck him with a ruler and restrained him, and instead of offering discipline or special needs training to his teacher, the school system simply moved that teacher to another school.

“I’ve since homeschooled all three of my children,” she said. “I think school choice is a good idea, because private schools are better, have better one-on-one interaction and have smaller classes. Choice is a wonderful thing, especially if you have a special needs child.”

Williams’ sister Michelle also homeschooled all of her children and now her grandchildren.

“I’m definitely a supporter of school choice,” she said. “I think every parent should have their own choice about where their child is educated. I’m here trying to learn how to participate in the decisions and about how to get involved.”

The Williams sisters were among the hundreds of parents, students and supporters attending the School Choice rally at the Oklahoma Capitol on Wednesday. Supporters rallied to advocate for school choice policies that they say will broaden educational options for Oklahoma families.

Advocates said they would visit dozens of lawmakers to communicate their support for issues and programs like Education Savings Accounts, charter school expansion, the Opportunity Scholarship Fund benefiting low-income children and the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships.

"Families have a right to choose where and how their children are educated," said ChoiceMatters for Kids President Robert Ruiz. "We are excited for our elected officials to get a chance to hear from the parents and kids whose lives have been changed for the better by school choice policies."  

Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb also spoke, saying that as a father, he would fight for the right of parents to choose where their child goes to school.

“I trust moms and dads to make the best decision for their child,” he said. “Parents should have a choice, regardless of zip code or checking account balance. Every child should have the opportunity, freedom and liberty to pursue the educational institution they want to go to.”

Battle lines

As the 2017 legislative session began, Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) offered up Senate Bill 560,  which would institute an Education Savings Account, or “voucher” system. School vouchers and/or education savings accounts (ESA) allow parents to choose a private school for their children and use all or part of the public funding to do so.

His bill was among six school-choice bills filed this session, but the only one to advance out of committee.

The funds that would go to a public school district for a student would instead be used by the family to pay for educational expenses like tuition, books, online education and tuition to private schools, which includes charter schools, specialty schools and religious schools.

In committee debate, Standridge said SB560 would ensure that low-income families could afford other educational options for their child, Standridge said. 

Standridge, however, pulled his bill in late February, saying he didn’t think he had the votes.

Opponents to ESAs and voucher programs said bills like Standridge’s would only cut more funding from an already tapped out public education system, sending those tax payments to private schools instead.

School choice does exist in Oklahoma, including charter schools, virtual charters schools, scholarship programs to attend private schools and homeschooling. The Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship offers state income tax credits for donations to scholarship granting organizations which give scholarships to private school students.

The Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, which provides students with special needs school vouchers to attend a private school of their parents’ choice.

Robert Ruiz of ChoiceMatters.

Parents also have the option to transfer children to a school district other than the one assigned by the location of their residence or apply to have their child attend any of the schools within the school district. 

Ruiz said the rally at the Capitol was to show lawmakers that more choice was needed.

“We are here for a dual purpose, the first being to thank the legislature for what they have already done for school choice,” he said. “Little by little, a plan is growing. The second purpose is to talk to them about expanding school choice. A lot of parents are still without access to school choice.”

Ruiz said school choice would especially help low-income families, adding that many of Oklahoma City’s charter schools have waiting lists of thousands of students.

“SB 560 is not dead, just laid over,” he said. “We want to bring that bill back. We’ve had 1,000 parents and students come through today to show they want to have the conversation and to show that support for school choice is growing.”

Financial ed

Opponents to ESA bills said vouchers would compound Oklahoma’s already dire education funding cuts and would only hurt lower-income or disenfranchised families.  

The School Boards Association did a financial analysis on SB560 and said the bill would have taken up to $30 million away from public schools in the first year and $1.6 billion over a decade.

Dallas Koehn, a ninth-grade history teacher in Tulsa who also runs the blog Blue Cereal Education, said vouchers and similar programs would not promote innovation or competition in public education, but would allow private schools to take or reject any child for any reason.

“Private schools can take or reject whoever they want. They can kick out kids at any time for any reason. They make their own rules for just about everything. Kids learn the way the school wants them to, or they don't learn,” he said.

“Public schools have to take everyone, whatever their backgrounds, needs, problems or whether or not they even want to be there. We can't kick kids out - even if suspended, we're legally required to continue educating them somehow. Even then, most of the time we teach kids for less per kid than private schools - hence the cost difference even with vouchers.”

Photos by Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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