COMMENTARY: Remember the KIDS? Is it for them, or for something else?
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Published: 08-Apr-2015

OKLAHOMA CITY – In memory yet green, I served on the KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools) Project, a program of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools.

More on that in a bit, but first: An interesting legislative dust-up recently opened my eyes about how little progress toward education reform has actually been made in Oklahoma.

At the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, some Republicans want to create a tax exemption for teachers up to $40,000 a year of income.

A measure by Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie, would benefit all public school teachers, including charter public school teachers, as well as private school teachers. Well and good by me.

However, one Democratic legislator, state Rep. David Perryman of Chickasha, managed to attach an amendment to a measure dealing with a different subject. 

Perryman would explicitly exclude not only private school teachers, but also public school teachers who work in charter schools. He says charters are not really public schools, and that they don't use certified teachers.

He's wrong. 

Leaving aside the private school questions, it seems unlikely that those who oppose including charter teachers have visited the charter schools operating today in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Join me to take a step “back in the day,” as high school students I teach these days like to say.

We were dreamers, I guess. The KIDS project 1997-2001 focused on everything, including student achievement. Over several years, a large group of volunteers worked together a few hours a week, ultimately hundreds of hours each.

The student achievement subcommittee for the KIDS Project remains an evergreen memory, in part because of the others who served on that panel.

Civic leaders Ray Potts and Frank McPherson chaired the student achievement group, and I drafted the report forming a basis for support of charter schools and other limited forms of choice.

Members included John Thompson, a public school teacher, Oklahoma City attorney Bruce Day, journalist J. Leland Gourley, and school advocate John Rex.

And, me -- a journalist who is also a certified teacher.

In public schools per se, the student achievement group supported development and expansion of the new charter schools. We wanted to allow parents, businesses, teachers and patrons -- or some combination thereof -- to start public schools with freedom from many traditional controls and limits.

Everywhere in America where charter schools have contributed to better education, the whole idea was and is to keep them “public,” yet free from some of the crippling bureaucracy in “regular” schools. That includes questions of hiring and firing teachers. Back then, everybody talked about the importance of strong school leaders, but our group actually wanted to empower them.

The governance and structure of public charter schools varies from state to state, but they have boards of directors, are subject to fiscal oversight and are accountable to students, patrons and taxpayers.

Those now living are 45 years into America's history with public charter schools. It would take an interesting argument to convince me that the folks who worked on the KIDS Project did not take seriously the “public” in public charter schools. Like me, they'd probably point to the fact that some charter schools have been shut down as evidence that charters are more accountable than many schools.

In our deliberations 15 years ago, the student achievement subcommittee supported continuance of enterprise school models, foreshadowing of the charters that finally came.

We supported magnet and specialty schools, including the Classen School School of Advanced Studies. (Yes, once upon a time, Classen SAS was controversial.) We hoped then that in the years ahead (remember, this was 1998-2001) cooperative ventures might emerge among public schools within and outside the city district, as a means efficiently to provide advanced math, science and arts courses.

Drawing on models in Minnesota and elsewhere, we even hoped to see joint ventures “with willing private schools, in return for compensation, to allow upper-grade students in public schools to access upper level math, science and other courses, including but not limited to AP (Advanced Placement) instruction offered at cooperating private schools.” We particularly hoped such projects could be designed when or if advanced courses were not available in the city district.

In terms of early childhood education, for “efficiency and equity,” we encouraged study of funding mechanisms to allow taxpayers and parents at all income levels to access existing quality programs regardless of whether those programs were designated “private” or “public."

Of all those “back in the day” ideas, only charter schools and early childhood start-ups actually happened. Roughly 15 years after charters were created in Oklahoma, there are still some who want to re-argue semantics about whethere or not charters are “public.”

Both Leland and John are now deceased, although the city's new downtown school, complete with its independent board, is named for the latter.

KIPP College Preparatory, Santa Fe South, the Harding schools and the rest of Oklahoma City's modest cluster of charters are, indeed, public schools, with teachers helping students who need and deserve support.

What did happen a result of the MAPS for Kids referenda – a direct result of the KIDS Project – is that local public school facilities improved, averting legal attacks based on equity arguments which, given the old schools' infrastructure, might have prevailed.

Those measures brought the largest infusion of new money for public schools enacted at the local level in state history. Despite its merits, MAPS for Kids never went beyond infrastructure, and early childhood education happened for other reasons.

The task now is to bring to more students the kind of quality and achievement they encounter at KIPP and other charter schools, and, for that matter, at private schools.

That's why we pay our education-related taxes – for the kids.

Or, am I a dreamer?

NOTE: The editor of and publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, McGuigan is a public charter alternative school teacher.

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