Education, Culture & the Family

Parent group launches, seeks accountability from schools

November 23, 2020

Ray Carter

Gathered at the Oklahoma Capitol on a brisk Monday, parents announced the formation of a group that will seek to empower families to have greater control in their children’s education—including the ability to hold recall elections for school board members that ignore parents’ wishes.

“Together, we can make our voices heard and become a force to be reckoned with,” said Jennifer Johnson, whose children attend Owasso schools. “As parents, we have an inherent power, and now is the time to exercise that power so that our children can get the education that they need and that they deserve.”

Johnson said Parent Voice Oklahoma will work to elevate the role of parents in school decisions across the state. According to a press release, local chapters have already been established in several communities, and interested parents can sign up at the group’s website.

Many parents involved in the group are fighting to have their local school district reopen for five-day-a-week, in-person instruction as an option alongside virtual education.

Johnson said the majority of parents have demanded that choice, but “those requests have fallen on deaf ears.”

“We need to have a voice in our children’s education,” Johnson said. “And that is what we’re fighting for.”

Matt Thompson, whose daughter is in the Deer Creek school district, said Oklahomans should be provided “recall opportunity” as a way to ensure elected officials like school board members can “be held accountable.”

Thompson said he will work to draft recall legislation and find lawmakers to sponsor that bill to provide “new school-board accountability across the whole state.”

“I want them to be accountable for their decisions and, if they have to be, removed,” Thompson said.

Officials said parents need such authority to make certain their concerns are not ignored.

“If we want to make change in our school, our administration has absolutely no incentive to listen to us,” Johnson said. “We have found this time and time again.”

Parents noted many school districts have chosen to shift to online education despite surveys showing up to 80 percent of parents prefer in-person instruction, despite scientific data showing children in the classroom are not “super spreaders” of COVID-19, and despite the successful reopening of other schools in Oklahoma.

Ron Causby, a father of students who attend Owasso and Oologah schools, said he is “not an activist of any kind,” but became involved in the parent effort after the Owasso superintendent abruptly announced the district would not provide in-person instruction to start the school year.

“She didn’t ask me anything about it,” Causby said. “She kicked down my door, took my tax money, and said you’re going to do what I tell you to do.”

At that time, Causby said, his six-year-old son was about to start the school year not yet knowing how to read. Causby ultimately had to transfer some of his children to another district to ensure they received a proper education.

Dana Walsh, a parent of a 13-year-old son in the Owasso school district, said she moved to Owasso because of the school district’s reputation but now finds she has little power over the quality of her son’s education.

“Not only do I not have a say in whether he attends school in-person, in a classroom, but I don’t see textbooks because everything’s electronic,” Walsh said. “I don’t see returned assignments. I don’t have anything to give me an idea of what he is being taught.”

Gerod Black, a father to two sons who have autism, noted that only one child in Oklahoma has died from COVID-related complications.

“While one death under the age of 18 in this state is tragic—do not get me wrong; it is an absolute tragedy—but hundreds of thousands of kids not getting an education in this state right now is the major tragedy,” Black said.

Danica Norman, mother of a child in the Owasso district, noted that reports of child abuse declined 45 percent last spring during the school shutdown.

“That doesn’t mean it is not happening and that these kids are all of sudden in a really loving home with their parents helping them do online school,” Norman said. “This just means that the abuse continues, and not only that, but they aren’t getting the education on top of that. This is something that has really kept me up at night.”

Christopher Todd Thiessen, a father of children in the Edmond school district, noted access to education is a state constitutional right and Oklahoma law requires 1,080 hours of school per year. But he said his two children have had only 20 days of actual in-person, classroom instruction under Edmond’s “blended” model that requires more virtual days than not.

“Twenty days of school since it started, and that’s counting March,” Thiessen said. “That’s not acceptable. And they say roughly 36 hours per week is required by the state Constitution for instruction. My kids are not getting instruction. They’re getting assignments on a laptop or an iPad, and they are not getting instruction.”

Several parents at the event noted children often do as little as one hour of actual work on virtual days.

Thiessen also noted suicide and depression have increased among teens during the pandemic and school closures.

“For every kid, no matter what district they come from, they should have the ability to go to school and not be left alone, not be left uneducated, because of choices that we didn’t make,” Thiessen said.

Jennifer James, a mother of children in the Deer Creek school district, said she has reached out to officials with several groups and researched entities ranging from the state school boards association to teachers’ unions. She noted the Oklahoma Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in Oklahoma, boasts on its website that it is “the voice of education in Oklahoma.” Yet, James noted, Oklahoma ranks among the bottom 10 states in educational outcomes.

“I’m not willing to let somebody else be ‘the voice’ for education in Oklahoma anymore,” James said. “Because they’ve been doing it since very early on, and we’re still failing our students.”

She said Parent Voice Oklahoma will focus on policies that provide the greatest benefit to students and families.

“If school choice ends up being what’s best for students, then that’s what I’m for,” James said. “If getting these organizations and tackling their power and taking away their power so that we can have a greater voice, if that’s what’s better for Oklahoma students, then that’s what I’m for.”

“We have to get back to school responsibly, but we have to do it. And we have to get back five days a week,” said Derek Lariviere, a father of students in the Deer Creek district. “And that’s what Parent Voice Oklahoma is all about. It’s about giving parents a voice to express these types of opinions and have a seat at the table with their school boards, with their elected representatives, with their superintendents. These are issues we face every day as parents and, frankly, right now we have no voice in the process and nothing to say about it because the decisions are being made behind closed doors in virtual meetings where parents aren’t allowed to attend.”