School Choice: An Inside Look

Like so many others in #oklaed, I registered and received a free ticket to attend the Oklahoma School Choice Summit, January 26th, 2017, at Oklahoma City Community College. On Thursday, I left school and went straight to OCCC. I went in around 4:15 wearing my Mid-Del ID, signed in on the back of a piece of folded paper, and received a wrist band and a “National School Choice Week” yellow scarf. I briefly looked around the exhibits of various private and charter schools and then immediately began tweeting out my impressions and observations.

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Soon after, I found my way to a nearby building where breakout sessions were taking place. I caught the last half of a workshop called “School Choice Policy Panel.” Then at 5, “Advocacy for School Leaders,” and at 6, “Communities of Color Panel.” When I got back to the Performing Arts Center at 7, I gained entrance with my wrist band, despite the fact that many of my education colleagues were denied entrance. But that’s another story. The main program began around 7:30 and included a legislative panel, awards, and culminated with a keynote address from Dr. Steve Perry. As I reflect on my experience, there are three specific and valuable lessons that are emerging for my personal understanding of the School Choice “movement.” For real time observations, please check out my twitter feed from 01/26, @bakerleft.

  1. School Choice wants to be seen as “the little guy.”

There is a “David and Goliath” narrative taking place in the School Choice world. In describing the giant, School Choice people use words and phrases like “the educational establishment,” “opponents of choice,” and “government schools.” Despite the fact that School Choice has massive corporate funding from the likes of the Walton Foundation and the Koch brothers, the narrative is that School Choice is a grass roots movement, a movement of the people trying to overcome this great big unchangeable object known as the public school system. Make no mistake, School Choice is playing offense, and they want to be seen as the underdog, the up-and-coming challenger. This is all carefully orchestrated to create a cause worthy of empathy while concealing the real giant, corporate greed eager to profit from within the public sector.

  1. School Choice is a partisan effort.

The characterization from within the School Choice movement is that all public schools advocates are liberal members of a teacher’s union. This is so much more than a gross and misleading generalization. Especially in a red state like Oklahoma, this kind of characterization is patently false. If all public school teachers in Oklahoma were liberal, then it is doubtful that the GOP would have a supermajority in both houses of the Oklahoma legislature. Furthermore, if every public school teacher in Oklahoma were union members, it is doubtful that Oklahoma teacher pay would have ever been ranked 49th in the nation. The fact is, Educational Savings Accounts have been rejected year after year in Oklahoma largely by the conservative constituents of Republican legislators, conservative teachers and families who happen to love their public school.

  1. School Choice claims social justice only when it is convenient.

The majority of School Choice rhetoric consists of very typical capitalist “free market” talking points. That’s why the word “choice” is so important. Then the switch occurs and suddenly School Choice becomes a civil rights issue or even a human rights issue. But since when is the free market a protector of civil rights? The primary need for market regulations is to protect vulnerable populations from the excesses that naturally occur in capitalism. The overwhelming evidence points to educational opportunities in communities of color suffering under unfettered School Choice policies. In a letter to his wife in 1952, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” Capitalism, by definition, benefits some and leaves out others. Is this what we want for our children?

Having spent an afternoon and evening among School Choice proponents, I am more resolved than ever to stand against charter schools and voucher programs. It is always interesting how candidly people speak when they believe that their ideological opponents are not listening. And it provides very valuable insights to those (like me) who arrive early and keep their contrarian thoughts to themselves.

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