A conversation starter: Are public schools accountable or efficient? If not, what can be done?

OKLAHOMA CITY — More and more frequently, defenders of the status quo in public education assert that public charter schools need to be made more “accountable.” Further, many assert that private schools should, if their students are allowed to participate in emerging educational choice options, meet the same requirements as public schools.

Among those of us who research and study American education, it is a common observation about school finance that the typical private school – a place like my alma mater Bishop John Carroll Elementary in Oklahoma City – charges far less per student in tuition than is spent per-pupil in the typical public school.

I am not speaking of elite academies (although I’m glad Oklahoma has a few of those) but about a school where the student body easily qualifies as diverse, and where the tuition is a fraction of what is spent per pupil in the near-monopoly public system.

Defenders of the status quo say that successful private schools should be made more like … public schools. Really?

As a career-long defender of “all-of-the-above” strategies to improve education — including incremental reforms of public schools,  

– I question why this demand for increased spending is endless, regardless of broader economic circumstances. To be clear, I helped sustain efforts at reform of city schooling (including more money) that overlapped with my tenure at the state’s largest newspaper.

That was then. This is now.

In the recent “Great Recession,” most families and businesses made do with less, because that is what free people do when times are rough. Yet, the public school establishment contends even as failure becomes a norm, that all we need to do is spend a LOT more money and everything will be better. After the results are dire, we’re told we haven’t spent enough.

That mantra was repeated within days after the largest local-level and voter-approved boost in taxpayer support for public schools in state history, the MAPS for Kids infrastructure improvements in 2001.

Up the turnpike, Tulsa’s Rev. Donald Tyler, an African-American preacher, has said “I have kids in my church who have graduated who can’t read.” Have there been mass firings in Oklahoma’s second largest district?

No, but Tulsa and near-by suburbs remain the heart of opposition to school choice programs, including even public charter schools. How is that “accountable”?

“The thing that breaks my heart more than anything,” Enid superintendent Shawn Hime said in 2010, “is when I see a student who is valedictorian from a school and they made a 14 on the ACT.”

What happens after a valedictorian graduates with a score insufficient to get into a regional college or university, and far short of the score needed for either of Oklahoma’s comprehensive universities?

Are there mass firings? Does money get redirected to teachers who can do better? If a valedictorian makes a 14 on the ACT, who is held “accountable”?

Those who run public schools say blithely that are “accountable.” Are they – I mean, really?

Exactly how? Are bad teachers fired? Do administrators welcome competition for students or resources?

Monopoly folks seem to think that regulation is synonymous with accountability. But is it?

In Baja Oklahoma (Texas), constitutional language requires that the Legislature “establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of free public schools.”

Despite some successes, Texas schools are not high-performing, either, but at least the “efficient” language is there. (And, they’re not really “free,” they are financed by the taxpayers. But stick with me.)

Even if unaccountable, are Oklahoma public schools at least “efficient?”

My Democratic friend state Rep. Richard Morrissette, otherwise a very smart fellow, contends public school administrative costs are low. I believe they are quite high, just this side of 50 percent, as Tulsa businessman Bob Sullivan documented some years back. Can we figure out who is right?

Our state constitution has no “efficient” provision. Our core document of governance says this: 

“Provisions shall be made for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools, which shall be open to all the children of the state and free from sectarian control; and said schools shall always be conducted in English: Provided, that nothing herein shall preclude the teaching of other languages in said public schools.”

Sooner, rather than later, how about focusing on efficiency and accountability — before we inject another few hundred million dollars into the public system?

NOTE: McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK, publisher of The City Sentinel, and a history teacher at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a public charter alternative school in Oklahoma City. A shorter version of this commentary first appeared at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs blog.