| December 5, 2012

A Better Way to Keep Oklahoma Students Safe at School

Most parents and policymakers believe their public schools are safe. They might change their minds if actual safety statistics were more transparent.

A relative handful of schools nationwide (less than one in 10) account for half of violent incidents. Nevertheless, federal officials caution that crime on school campuses is “substantial,” and that “students are more fearful at school today than in the past.”

Around 80 percent of public schools nationwide report violent criminal incidents. Close to half of all schools report incidents of theft, and more than two-thirds of schools report crimes involving weapons, drugs, alcohol, and vandalism.

Importantly, crime statistics are similar for suburban and urban public schools, with close to one in five urban and suburban schools reporting incidents of violent crimes. Yet these statistics don’t tell the whole story.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, students may transfer to another public school if their current one meets their state’s definition of a persistently dangerous school (PDS). But because states define unsafe schools so narrowly, less than 50 public schools out of nearly 100,000 nationwide are labeled PDS each year.

Oklahoma is no exception.

Since 2003, no Oklahoma public school has ever met the state’s PDS threshold. One reason is it’s limited to violent criminal offenses. What’s more, the state’s PDS threshold stipulates that a specified proportion and kind of violent criminal offenses must occur for three consecutive years before a school is considered persistently dangerous.

Students shouldn’t have to wait for safer options—and state lawmakers shouldn’t wait for Congress to act.

Oklahoma should consider implementing a Safety Opportunity Scholarship (SOS) program. Under an SOS program, parents with a reasonable apprehension for their children’s safety—including instances of bullying—could transfer them immediately to safer schools of their choice within or beyond their resident school districts, including public, charter, virtual, or private schools.

Scholarships would match the state per-pupil funding at students’ current public schools. If parents opted to send their children to less expensive schools, the savings would revert back to the state general fund—leaving more money for programs to help all schools become safer.

An SOS program would fulfill NCLB’s stated goal that “All students will be educated in learning environments that are safe, drug-free, and conducive to learning.” Such a program would also have numerous advantages over the current PDS mandate.

Rather than stigmatizing schools with a PDS label, parents could act to keep their schoolchildren safe now, not years from now. Parents would also have more safe school options by not being limited to public schools within their children’s current districts—schools that might not have room to accommodate transfers. And, instead of costing states and schools more money, an SOS program could help bring costs down.

Students should not have to wait years at a time or become victims of crime before their parents are allowed to transfer them to safer schools. Empowered parents, not ineffective mandates, are a better way to keep children safe at school.

Vicki Alger (Ph.D. in political philosophy, University of Dallas) is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, where she is working on a book examining the history of the U.S. Department of Education. She has served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and has also advised education policymakers in more than 30 states.

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