Black and white, and read all over: School choice more compelling than ever

Oklahoma City – My entire career, I have supported realistic, incremental reforms in American elementary and secondary education. I devoted two years of my life teaching in a ghetto school, pouring myself into the lives of kids living in poverty and loss.

I write this not to pat myself on the back but as prelude to thoughts shared below. Besides, I received as much as I gave then and in other settings teaching, and learning from, inner city children.

Bottom line, I support steps large and small, dramatic and methodical, principled and practical, to move past rhetoric and into educational transformation.

The names and faces of those with whom I’ve worked, young people filled with promise but often crushed by the reality of poverty, come to mind every time I sit at the keyboard. The roll call of those youngsters leads me to embrace a new season, a time for broader and more dramatic education reform.

With that background and belief system, sympathetic to the stated intentions of those who defend the status quo, I write:

It is almost September. Another school year is upon us, which means another crop of black children is about to have their lives ruined in lousy schools with lousy teachers and lowered expectations. Another year in which commentators will err on the side of caution, giving the benefit of the doubt to a dysfunctional education establishment that values, contrary to all its rhetoric, the prerogatives of employees more than the needs of children.

Is that blunt enough?

Do black children and all children in American schools deserve choices? Yes.

Chronicling incremental advances for school choice over the past two decades – more or less coinciding with the emergence of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) and its publications – I have been drawn in particular to the voices of concerned leaders among Oklahoma’s African-American population.

Some of these heroes and heroines remain cautious in policy terms, yet still perform bravely and boldly at the front lines of the war on ignorance and deprivation in modern America.

Tracy McDaniel, after years of service in the regular public schools, brought the magnificent KIPP model to Oklahoma City. He runs what is now the highest performing public school in the metropolitan area. Choice, and competition, breeds excellence.

Students at KIPP come from the poorest zip code in urban Oklahoma. They learn the classics, memorize poetry, and can cipher and decipher like kids from Casady, Oklahoma City’s best known private college preparatory school.

In our most recent exchange McDaniel told me, “We have more kids than ever before at KIPP. I am for inner city school choice, not for universal choice.” He explained, “Inner city kids are trapped and can’t get all the opportunities they need. All kids should have a chance to go to and through college. The bottom line for me is ‘quality seats’ in classrooms.”

Repeatedly a recipient of national awards for excellence, stretching from its years as an experimental “regular” public school and into recent years as a charter, KIPP OKC won another round of national honors in May.

McDaniel and his staff just began a new school year. He told me in late August, “Our goal now is sharing best practices and helping the school district improve.”

Tracy is my favorite school choice moderate.

Also from Oklahoma City’s northeast side, state Rep. Anastasia Pittman – soon likely to be state Sen. Pittman – said in an email exchange she supports choice because she “supports schools that work.” Previously, Pittman said she advocated for choice because “it will make our school districts better, it will make our families stronger.”

A successful non-KIPP public charter school model has emerged in Oklahoma City’s ASTEC (Advanced Science and Technology Charter) School, where 750 students and 75 staff are proving that KIPP-style success can be replicated.

Chief Operating Officer at ASTEC is my high school classmate Harold Roberts, a conservative Republican closely allied with Freda Deskin, a Democrat whom I respect. Harold and I cut our rhetorical teeth battling and bonding as delegates in the Model United Nations at Bishop McGuinness, back in the day.

Last spring, Roberts played a key role in negotiating a new affiliation for ASTEC, which is now sponsored by Oklahoma State University. ASTEC students are overwhelmingly minority. More than 90 percent of the graduates are going on to higher education. So, If KIPP is not your cup of tea …

There is increasing understanding that choice sparks better performance. Last year, in an essay for Huffington Post, Prof. Matthew Lynch of Oklahoma’s Langston University, an historically black institution, described school choice as “a movement that strives to improve education in all schools through the old-fashioned business concept of competition.”

Ideas such as this aren’t black or white, of course. They are essential, and universal.

The late economist Milton Friedman, in many ways the father of modern American school choice, inspired former President Ronald Reagan when he spoke of “the magic of the marketplace” in education and other parts of life.

For me, competition and efficiency are, if not magic, at least core functions of the marketplace. And what can be considered more important than quality education? And who is more deserving than the poorest of the poor, too often stuck in the worst schools?

In the long run, full-bore choice – in which ghetto children have the same options to choose excellence as do suburban kids or private school kids – is the only way to assure better quality education and equity for children facing the most serious challenges in American education.

More aggressive than a McDaniel or a Pittman or even a Roberts is Jabar Shumate, now a state Senator from north Tulsa. The man looks like a linebacker, but talks like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Years ago, he called school choice the civil rights issue of the Twenty-First Century.

I met Shumate when he worked for David Boren at the University of Oklahoma in the mid-1990s and always knew he would be a leader. The young Democrat is, along with state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma, the Legislature’s leading advocate of choice in education.

In an interview this summer, Sen. Shumate told me, “I am thankful for what has been accomplished in Oklahoma in terms of school choice. Oklahoma is the only state to have a Democratic Governor sign a voucher bill, the Lindsey Nicole Henry Special Needs Scholarship.  That accomplishment alone thrust Oklahoma into the national spotlight.

“With the expansion of charter school laws, a robust tax credit program, and scores of educational reform initiatives, Oklahoma has become a pacesetter in the country for educational choice.

“As we look forward, we still have a great deal of work ahead to ensure quality programs and equitable access for those in our most vulnerable communities.  However, I am confident that we have built an educational environment where families are empowered to make decisions about their future, and for that, it has been worth the fight.”
I’m not sure Oklahoma is yet a pacesetter, but Shumate’s words imply great potential in development of existing state school choice models.

The role of honor among black leaders supporting school choice includes Rev. Donald Tyler of Tulsa’s Greater Grace Temple.

When he came to Oklahoma from Los Angeles in the 1990s, Pastor Tyler was shocked at the poor quality of most of the public schools his congregants’ children attended.

He told me in a memorable 2008 interview that “parents blame the system, and the system blames the parents.” He wants the church to “stop into the middle, to have and to use a holistic policy to reach these kids in the entirety of their circumstances.” He is working to expand options for children most in need in the heart of a poverty-stricken area.  
And, there is Dr. Betty Mason of St. John Christian Heritage Academy, whose school is sponsored by St. John Missionary Baptist Church and pastor M. L. Jemison. Both have become advocates of tax-credit scholarships here in the Sooner State.

When we first met, Dr. Mason was a public school administrator – for two years superintendent of the Oklahoma City Public School District. Today, her charges at St. John leave her private elementary school to attend the best private, public charter and traditional public schools in Oklahoma City.

Those students get their degrees, going on to active law-abiding citizenship and in many cases higher educational opportunities. It boggles the mind to imagine what could be accomplished if Dr. Mason’s tiny system had hundreds, instead of dozens, of students every year.

What choices should be provided for Oklahoma school children?

Charters? Vouchers? Tax credit scholarships? ESAs? Parent triggers?

Public schools of choice, including charters? Yes.

Expanding the model of the Henry Scholarship for Special Needs Children directly benefiting special needs children, and their parents? Yes.

Vouchers empowering parents and students to make portable the value they should be receiving in public schools, taking that value into private schools of choice? Yes.
More tax-credit financed scholarship programs, financed by generous Oklahomans to provide more and better choices? Yes.

Education Scholarship Accounts, financed by taxpayers and/or private actors to give young elementary and second scholarships the same opportunities we dream of for our college youth? Yes.

A parent trigger law (illustrated in the true-to-life fictionalized account in the film “Won’t Back Down” with Maggie Gyllenhall) to allow parents to seize control of the worst public schools and create higher quality choices? Yes.

In my dream world, all of the above would be achieved, and Jabar Shumate would be in charge of the programs.

But for the sake of the future and to enhance the potential of all our children, let’s be reasonable and settle for just a couple of these in the 2015 legislation session, then a couple more in 2016. 

There you go: The soul of moderation.

For the children.

Count me in the ranks of those who want “all of the above” – every possible option for the children, their parents, their communities and our country.

NOTE: McGuigan, a certified teacher, is the author of hundreds of articles on education policy in Oklahoma and across America. This essay is adapted from a commentary, forthcoming in the September 2014 edition of Perspective Magazine, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (