Patrick B. McGuigan | March 3, 2015

YOU GUEST IT: Three choices on school choice: Pay, move, or lie

Patrick B. McGuigan

In our state, opportunities to exercise school choice are pretty limited, unless you have money or fall into certain hard-to-educate (but not impossible-to-educate) categories, such as students with special needs.

For most families, the options for parents and students are: pay for school choice, move into a public school district where schools are decent, or lie.

Let's start with paying for it yourself.

I'm an Irish Catholic. Many, but not all, Catholics choose to send their children to Catholic schools. (For that matter, many non-Catholics send their kids to Catholic schools. They generally make that choice so that their children have the best education possible, and they don't have confidence their children will get that in local public schools.) To pay for schooling my four sisters and me, our parents, middle class folk, borrowed money from a credit union our family has patronized for decades. They did this while paying the same taxes as everybody else, including taxes that went to finance education for other families.

In Catholic schools I learned to value, even cherish, diversity and pluralism. I studied in-depth the history of America, warts and all. I learned to love God and my fellow human beings. I want quality education for my fellow citizens, as a matter of equity and in support for the principles of our democratic Republic and the Constitution.

After six years of service in the U.S. Navy, Bruce McGuigan worked as a meat-cutter for Kamp's Grocery. He benefited from school choice, albeit a program available only to adults. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he financed a bachelor's degree in accounting, becoming a white-collar worker when I was a lad. Then, he earned his law degree in night school, finishing when I was a senior in high school.

Daddy went to Oklahoma City University, a Methodist-affiliated institution. In law school years, I saw him model what he and our Church taught my four sisters and me. He joined a professional fraternity that admitted people of all races, religions, and beliefs. Later, as president of that group, he quietly worked with others to remove remaining barriers to minority students.

I was a grown man when, after three decades of sacrifice, Dad and my mother Bonnie paid off the last of the loans needed to send me and my four sisters to Catholic schools. They were in that “pay for it yourself” category of private school patrons — unless you count the G.I. Bill. So, I suppose Dad was in the middle? I snagged some college scholarships (private and public), so I fall into the middle of the “pay for it yourself” spectrum, as well. My wife and I followed our forebears in sending our four children primarily (but not exclusively) to Catholic schools.

No surprise: Our family wants more, not fewer, people who are able to avail themselves of similar opportunities, making similar sacrifices along the way. Brace yourself: We are not among them, but some who send their own children to private schools oppose any use of taxpayer resources to support similar choices for those less fortunate.

As is widely known but rarely discussed in polite company, President and Mrs. Obama put their daughters in a private Quaker school, an elite academy in the nation's capital. I know this will be hard to believe, but it is true: Some public school teachers who oppose choice for other peoples' children find a way to send their own children to private schools. Grant them the benefit of doubt. Agree they are entitled to make that choice. I just don't understand why the same choice is not granted to all Americans, regardless of zip code.

Which brings us to the “move” or “lie” categories.

If you are a person of modest means living in an urban area where public schools perform poorly, you can, in theory, move to the suburbs and into a district with strong funding and a good (or at least decent) educational reputation. Of course, not everyone is in a position to do that. I have particular sympathy for the working poor who, as a practical matter, cannot pack up and move because their nearby public school is below average, and who are denied the opportunities I had.

Several years ago, my pal Brandon Dutcher at OCPA distilled one form of “choice” under duress:

Some parents are so desperate to get a better education for their kids that they will lie about their place of residence. Fortunately, the educrats have the situation under control. In August, I drove by an Edmond middle school near my house and noticed that some modern-day George Wallaces had found a way to block the schoolhouse door: “MUST HAVE JUNE OR JULY UTILITY BILL,” the sign proclaimed. “NO EXCEPTIONS.”

Which brings us to the most common form of school choice in Oklahoma: real-estate-based school choice. Despite the higher home prices and property taxes in places like Edmond and Jenks, many people move there so their kids can attend the public schools. And we can’t let just anyone in, you understand.

Indeed, school districts often go to some length to stamp out this black market in school choice. One Tulsa mother discovered just how serious the residency police are when a Tulsa Union school district official knocked on her door and asked to see her daughter’s bedroom and belongings (education reporter Mike Antonnuci dubbed it “the creepy school district border patrol).

In Oklahoma, stories are legion about students who live in one district but find a way to attend school in another. I'm not talking about open transfer, in which a student can in certain circumstances shift attendance to a nearby district so long as the receiving district is agreeable. No, I'm talking about situations involving athletics rather than education, per se.

I first learned about such things during eight years as a middle-school-age coach. I worked in both private schools and competitive leagues open to everyone, including children from every possible educational background and every socio-economic stratum. Our team regularly scrimmaged with public schools, “club” teams, and private schools. Those were some of the best years of my life, but there were undercurrents of tension.

It was when I worked with kids on highly competitive traveling teams that I learned about youngsters living in, let's say, a city like Jenks or the suburban Tulsa Union district versus those in a smaller system such as Liberty. On the one hand, a decent (not superstar) athlete residing in a bigger town, bound by ZIP code to compete in the state's largest and most competitive class, might find a way to live with a relative or a family friend in a smaller community, where he or she or might be a starter. On the other hand, a potential superstar living in that smaller district might find a way to establish residency in a larger district, in order to get a better shot at the notoriety required to draw the attention from big-name colleges.

And then there's recruiting by the school or schools. There have been documented instances (below the college level) of public school districts and/or their patrons quietly finding ways to bring a small-town kid with big-college potential into their system. This is regular fodder for sports stories in newspapers, on television, and online. Given human nature, none of this is at all surprising.

It's kind of like taxes: Don't tax me, don't tax thee, tax that fellow behind the tree. Or, in this context: Choice for me, choice for thee, but not for that fellow behind the tree.

It doesn't have to be this way, and in fact there is another way.

The near-monopoly status quo was not born in a day. A choice-oriented alternative cannot be fashioned immediately. Assume that the stream of education dollars derived from taxation could be redirected to follow the preferred sites of students and parents, and their preferences for schooling, rather than the designs of administrators.

Implementation would present challenges, but the core idea is not complex: tax money follows the child's needs and the parent's or parents' preferences. Education-bound money collected from taxation on us all, including private school and home school parents, would in such a system benefit every child. Like the G.I. Bill and its progeny, let the money follow those who are getting educated.

Build the design around individuals, not systems.

[Guest blogger Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University), 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.]

Patrick B. McGuigan

Independent Journalist

A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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