Patrick B. McGuigan | June 1, 2009

Oklahoma Charter Schools Prevail

Patrick B. McGuigan

The struggle for quality education in Oklahoma, particularly in terms of consumer choice and empowerment, is rarely marked by dramatic moments. Most forward movement toward better schooling comes in small increments.

The rare exceptions that bring high drama are therefore memorable. One such moment came on April 23, 2009, which should stand as a red-letter day for all of us laboring to provide higher quality education.

The Honorable Carolyn R. Ricks, a district judge in Oklahoma County, ruled for the good guys in a case pitting the Tulsa Public School district (TPS) against the Oklahoma Charter School Association.

The case began when the TPS sued the state Department of Education, seeking to crush Oklahoma's charters. The agency was soon severed from the case in early legal steps. Nonetheless, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett, and even the office of Attorney General Drew Edmondson, defended Oklahoma charter schools, first created in a landmark state law passed in 1999.

While giving the two statewide elected Democrats their due, the strongest legal advocacy came from the charter schools themselves. The band of brothers and sisters who run these 15 schools-12 in Oklahoma City, three in Tulsa-can indeed, be called "a happy few."

For the charter schools, leading the charge were Oklahoma City lawyers Randall J. Wood, Louis P. Falsetti, and Paula M. Henderson. Their briefs throughout the fight this past year were bold, and even righteously indignant at times.

Nothing like plain English to make your case: "Tulsa School District has filed this lawsuit to destroy every charter school in the state of Oklahoma. This lawsuit is a cynical attempt by the Tulsa School District, acting in open opposition to the will of the Oklahoma legislature and the expressed will of Oklahoma voters, to advance the Tulsa School District's self-serving political agenda."

For good measure, "this work of political theater has no place in the courtroom."

At its core, the litigation was pro-bureaucracy and anti-choice, including an attack on the Legislature's power to make reasonable distinctions among urban and rural jurisdictions. Success for TPS would not only have put charter schools at risk, but also a range of other state laws drawing governance distinctions between urban and rural jurisdictions.

For Oklahoma charter schools, the stakes could not have been higher. All over America, urban districts have the worst educational performance. It's no surprise that big cities host the vast majority of charters, public schools that allow some freedom from mandates and regulations applied to others. And, all over America, the results have been the same: charter schools are educating children who otherwise would be left behind.

In Oklahoma, more than 40 percent of all students are educated in just 20 school districts with average daily membership (attendance) over 5,000. Twelve of those districts are located in Tulsa County and Oklahoma County. The original policy choice to limit Oklahoma's charter schools to these larger districts was a recognition that the urban areas provide the "critical mass" to make choice an operational reality without unduly assailing rural sensitivities. As it happens, all of the existing charter schools are in the two largest districts.

In her April 23 edict, Judge Ricks ruled it was not "arbitrary or capricious" of the Legislature "to permit pilot charter school programs in larger school districts in the state's major metropolitan areas where they have a better chance of success and where the resources needed are more readily available."

Judge Ricks concluded, "The purposes of the Charter School Act include providing additional academic choices for parents and students, encouraging the use of different, innovative teaching methods, and increasing learning opportunities for students. The establishment of charter schools under the Act clearly serves those purposes, and all within the class are treated equally."

Marlin Oil Corporation, run by OCPA trustee Ralph Harvey, a faithful supporter of education reform, said in an advertisement just after Judge Ricks' ruling: "While broader forms of parental and student choice in education-including scholarships for private education for students most in need-are probably overdue, charter schools are a sensible [version] of reform that has proven itself effective in Oklahoma and around the country."

It took a couple of weeks, but early last month TPS decided not to appeal the ruling to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Thus, the most serious legal assault on Oklahoma charter schools since their creation a decade ago is over.

Basking in the glow of victory early last month, after Tulsa stood down in the case, House Speaker Chris Benge and other legislators said the district's decision to stop its litigation could foster greater cooperation between reformers and public school officials.

"All Oklahoma students do not learn in the same way, and charter schools are simply another tool within the public school system to help encourage innovation and creativity in our classrooms," said Benge. "I applaud the Tulsa school board for embracing the need for change in our system to the benefit of all Oklahoma students."

Tad Jones of Claremore, a leading Republican advocate of reform, said the board's decision would "foster an environment of greater cooperation." The board voted unanimously to drop the legal challenge, and moved to cease a so-called "moratorium" on new charter school applications.

All's well that ends well, I suppose. The board could have wasted even more money appealing the case to the state Supreme Court, but now the charter school concept can move ahead in our state without the Tulsa cloud hanging over it.

I have consistently supported lawsuit reform for the sake of a more vibrant and economically creative Oklahoma, but I hope friends will forgive me for entertaining occasional fantasies about creation of a new "anti-reform tort" that would apply solely to school officials, including board members, who put institutional needs above the educational needs of children.

I am only half joking. This litigation officially cost Tulsa schools (read: taxpayers) $103,000. With that kind of money you could hire and pay benefits to a couple of top-drawer special educators, for starters. The reported amount is likely an understatement, and does not include the cost in lost time and resources to charter school advocates who defended this sensible reform.

State Rep. Jabar Shumate, interviewed frequently for Perspective in the past two years, got it just right when he said Judge Ricks' ruling was "a victory for families in Tulsa and a loss for bureaucrats who would condemn the poor to a substandard education because of the circumstances of their birth."

Shumate said he has "actively supported the efforts of charter schools, which are proving that all children can learn and achieve, regardless of poverty or family background. If the Tulsa schools had succeeded in their lawsuit, they would have effectively turned their back on the neediest children in our state."

After the Tulsa board decided to drop its expensive anti-choice litigation, Shumate said, "My goal has always been to provide the families of my district greater educational opportunity and I am pleased the Tulsa school board now supports those efforts. I believe education is the civil rights struggle of 21st century America and I am proud all of Tulsa's education leaders are now on the same side in this important battle. The Tulsa school board members deserve praise and thanks for this vote."

There are still plenty of things to fret over, including the Legislature's decision, early in the 2009 session, to delay consideration of a bill creating a tax-credit scholarship program so that students in the worst traditional public schools can access private education. Also worrisome was Gov. Brad Henry's veto, this past legislative session, of two bills to allow further charter-like experimentation.

But those concerns in the continuing struggle for sensible, incremental reforms in Oklahoma education should not rob reform advocates of a brief time of satisfaction. For a moment, linger with me, pause, and raise a glass in a toast to Oklahoma's charter schools, their lawyers and supporters.

Well done!

OCPA research fellow Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is an editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. He is the author of two books and the editor of seven. A state-certified teacher, for two years he taught middle-school and high-school students at a public charter alternative school.

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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