| February 2, 2011

Oklahoma’s Keystone Choice: A Garden in Winter, with Lots of Sunshine

Around America, the month of January saw a dramatic surge of school choice proposals in at least four states, programs designed actually to empower parents in deed, not merely in rhetorical flourishes.

On January 11 in Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, Senators Anthony H. Williams (a Democrat) and Jeffrey E. Piccola (a Republican) released details of a plan to allow low-income families to seek scholarships to send children to schools of their choice. Pennsylvania already has a widely praised scholarship program, but the new proposal would increase the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) by $25 million.

Also last month, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey went full speed ahead on a panoply of reforms, including invigorated choice for parents and students, to include access to private providers of educational services.

Praising Christie’s bold moves, announced in the Garden State’s January 11 State of the State address, was Derrell Bradford, executive director of a group dubbed E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone). Bradford said Christie understands “the fierce urgency of now.” He asserted, “We have had too many decades of spending and delay, but no solutions, and we’ve lost a million or more children during that time. Our children deserve choices and reform and they deserve them now.”

Christie has the help of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., who became a national figure due to Waiting for ‘Superman.’ The powerful documentary made clear that problems in American education are not limited to decaying urban centers, but reach the suburbs, where buildings are nice but academic quality is too often slipping.

Then, there’s Florida. The Sunshine State is still doing the most to model sweeping reform. New Governor Rick Scott wants to expand Florida programs, now limited to low-income and disabled students, to all children. Scott unveiled expansive plans at a rally for current recipients of choice scholarships, saying it was time “to give every child the opportunity you’ve had, to make sure that you go to whatever school you want to.”

Scott is considering a plan—essentially universal vouchers—in which Florida parents could create an education savings account for their child, then receive state funds equal to 85 percent of the child’s per-pupil funding in the public school system. That may have broad appeal as advocates seek better schooling in a continuing era of comparatively limited taxpayer resources.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who visited Oklahoma last year, remains a leading national advocate for educational choice, including the programs he established in Florida. Bush is coming to Oklahoma City on March 30 for OCPA’s annual Citizenship Dinner (see page 3). Bush summed up his perspective on the emerging Florida model in a Wall Street Journal commentary last month:

“Rewards and consequences work. If a public school doesn’t measure up, families have an unprecedented array of … options: public school choice, charter schools, vouchers for pre-K students, virtual schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers for students with disabilities.”

The fourth state where new school choice proposals are gaining strength is our own Sooner State. Reformers here are celebrating the pro-choice orientation of the new superintendent of public instruction, Janet Barresi, and endorsements of parental choice from Governor Mary Fallin.

In the Legislature, there are many reasons to believe the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, benefiting children with special needs, will be strengthened this year. The Henry scholarships were a significant milestone, one of the clearest examples of a bipartisan “walk” that followed former Governor Brad Henry’s talk.

Sen. Dan Newberry of Tulsa hopes to build on last year’s momentum from the historic passage of those special-needs scholarships for the most vulnerable and “at-risk” students. He has a revised proposal to create a tax-credit-funded scholarship program similar to the one operating in Pennsylvania. The measure would allow scholarship-granting organizations to help students (and their families) access better educational options.

Newberry’s Senate Bill 969 would allow tax credits of up to $1,000 a year for individuals and $2,000 a year for couples for contributions to eligible scholarship-granting organizations. Businesses could also draw a credit, with the total value of the program limited to $10 million.

Scholarships could go to families making up to 300 percent of the income standard used for the free or reduced school lunch program. Higher grants for special-needs children would be allowed. Scholarships could only be used at accredited schools with accountability, and criminal background checks of teachers and staff.

In an interview for Perspective, Sen. Newberry made the case for S.B. 969, filed on January 20 and likely to receive initial consideration this month. He said:

“Ronald Reagan said the scariest words in the American language are ‘we are from the government and we are here to help.’ Parents need to be able to choose which education facility will best meet the needs of their child, and we as a state should empower them to do so. Some may say that they already have that ability by deciding which school district they live in. However, for many parents it is not a choice, but economics that determine which district they live in.”

Newberry summarized his view this way:

“A government that limits a parent’s options is really determining what is best for that family. This ‘help’ really strikes at the essence of one’s civil liberties.”

With introspection about tax credits and exemptions in an era when state government revenues are coming in at levels reminiscent of 2005—much lower than from 2006-2008—it states the obvious to assume that his proposal will face questions at the Capitol. Asked if he saw problems pushing a tax-credit-based reform, Newberry responded candidly:

“There is no doubt that this will be a tough economic year for our state. We must be responsible in how we address the funding for a school choice program. We must equally be responsible to the children that need an education alternative. These are children who have no choice where they live, yet have to bear the socioeconomic conditions of that neighborhood. Creating true school choice eliminates the barrier that holds some of the children back and allows them to reach for the stars. Keeping that balance between the two should be our objective.”

Aside from the obvious fact that Republicans have six more seats this year than last, Sen. Newberry is optimistic because he has worked on this proposal for years, methodically making the case for choice. There is bipartisan support for reform, especially in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas.

Newberry reflected, “This bill has been through several legislative years and has grown its support in both rural and urban areas, as well as across party lines. Our members understand the importance education plays for the future prosperity of our citizens. This coalition is committed to accomplishing education reform that works and understands the true rewards this program will offer to families who have lost hope in so many ways. I am convinced that we will be successful in bringing this reform, considering all levels of our government understand its necessity.”

Last year’s version made it out of committee, with unified GOP support. Two urban Democrats—Tom Adelson of Tulsa and Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City—supported the tax credits. Both backed the 2008 version of the legislation, with Adelson actually speaking in favor.

A couple of Democratic foes—Johnnie Crutchfield and Jay Paul Gumm—are no longer in the Senate. Crutchfield “termed-out,” while Gumm lost to Josh Brecheen in November.

That original 2008 bill, carried by then-Sen. James Williamson, brought together an unusually strong bipartisan Senate majority, at a time when the Democrats still had half the seats in the upper chamber. Williamson is now a key aide to Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, who supports continued reform, including programs where students carry benefits with them in seeking private providers.

Advocates, including Oklahoma City lawyer Bill Price, are optimistic. The challenge may come in the state House, where some rural Republicans remain uneasy.

Like never before, the tide of history seems to favor school choice, with even the Obama administration favoring slices of the choice pie.

January 2011 may one day be considered the month when momentum for true parental choice in public education finally and truly broke through impediments put in place over generations by bureaucrats and teachers’ unions.

As the power of argument eludes them, opponents of dramatic reform say often that choice is not a panacea. Perhaps it is not, but it certainly would be an improvement over our nation’s failing status quo. It is notable that in general those folks also oppose charters schools, administrative consolidation, ending or reforming teacher tenure, and merit pay to reward good teachers.

Which brings to mind something else Derrell Bradford, the E3 leader touting the Pennsylvania reforms, said recently: “We now have a different kind of paradigm where there are only two kinds of legislators: those who want reform and understand how immediately our students need it, and those who don’t.”

This could be the dawning of a new age. For Oklahoma, is it time to let the Sunshine in?

Patrick B. McGuigan (M.A., Oklahoma State University) is editor of CapitolBeatOK. He is a certified teacher, and spent two years teaching at a public charter alternative school.

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