WE’VE HEARD THIS TUNE BEFORE

It’s a game as old as time. The confidence man Harold Hill enters River City and convinces the good hard-working people that there’s trouble. A trouble they somehow didn’t see right underneath their own noses. A serious failure right there in their peaceful sleepy town.

River City in The Music Man has trouble, Hill proclaims. Trouble starts with “T” which rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool. Unfortunately Harold Hill was just a conman with an eye on looting the good hard-working people’s money on baseless fears about their youth.

This week we Oklahomans will hear a similar tune piped in from outsiders that there’s trouble in Oklahoma – trouble with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for Public Schools.

They aim to convince us our schools are failing, our teachers and administrators are monsters, and that our school boards don’t care about the future of Oklahoma education.

National School Choice Week runs January 22-28th. In reality this is not much more than a public relations campaign in order to soften the blow of vouchers to local public schools.

Like a parent trying to make terrible medicine taste better with sugar, voucher proponents have recast themselves as “school choice” (because who doesn’t love more choices!) and hide their rather nefarious agenda behind a false appeal to American values such as individualism and freedom. In reality the voucher movement offers something un-American and unconstitutional in our state.

Oklahomans have repeatedly answered the voucher question in poll after poll. Their resounding answer is NO. No to privatization of public schools. No to religious schools getting tax dollars. No to vouchers that would only benefit the wealthiest Oklahomans while simultaneously hurting those already in poverty.

The answer couldn’t be more clear. NO.

Yet rich and powerful outside groups continue their assault on our basic values as Oklahomans. They think because we are a largely religious state they can bend us to their will if they throw a scripture out here or there. They think we are gullible so they try to cast doubt on our good public schools by calling them “failing” or “atheist-based”.

Furthermore, we have dedicated teachers in Oklahoma who work for some of the absolute lowest pay in all of the nation for teachers. And yet they love our kids, show up to work with a smile on our face, say a few prayers before the bell rings, and love on our kids until the busses pull out that afternoon.

Part of the issue comes with the purposefully benign and vague use of the term “school choice”.

Does “school choice” mean a public school district seeing opportunities to enrich their students by creating science, math, or fine arts based magnet schools?

Or does “school choice” mean public charter schools created to meet needs in areas that are held to the same standards and accountability as public schools?

Or does “school choice” mean creating tax loopholes for the wealthy to loot public money earmarked for all children so that only a few of the wealthiest get the benefit? Does it mean private companies and fly-by-night for-profit cyber schools can pay their executives in excess of $6 million per year of 100% taxpayer money like Oklahoma’s largest virtual school?

Or does “school choice” mean dismantling common education completely and turning each child into a marketable commodity to be publicly traded on the stock market? Profits down? Investors not happy? Get rid of those students.

Unfortunately “school choice” can mean all of those things and therefore it’s nearly a useless phrase. At its core, “school choice” seems fairly innocuous. Who could disagree that a parent should be able to direct their child’s education? But this is a God-given right that doesn’t need government intervention to define further.

Certainly we can see how magnet schools, public charters held to the same standards and accountability, and even the idea that parents can choose where their child attends – public, private, or homeschool are all valid “school choices”.

These choices are already guaranteed in Oklahoma.

In fact Oklahoma already has some of the most homeschool friendly approaches to school choice. We are the only state to have no laws regulating homeschooling. We are the only state that includes a guarantee of the right to homeschool children baked into our constitution.

Voucher programs, ESAs, scholarship tax credits – whatever “hat” the voucher/privatization idea wears at the moment – all have significant strings attached to those state funds.

Regulation and control by the government authorities in states that have become voucher friendly have become a nightmare and headache for private schools and homeschooling families. This in my opinion is markedly “anti-school choice”.

In Chicago parents now complain that due to privatization of public schools and funding and a rash of school closings because of this – they now have less choices available to them. In Detroit a failed experiment of two decades now has created an additional layer of charter schools with zero improvement in student test scores or educational outcomes.

So why the push for “school choice”? As with most things, someone stands to put a coin in their pocket if they can get enough voters to come to their side. But who?

The organizations are diverse and not politically aligned; however, they do have one common motive: profit. The end game is to decimate the constitutionally guaranteed free public education of the many in Oklahoma in order to create a marketplace of financial gain for the few.

They think we’re gullible and ignorant because we have morals, values, and tend to be religious. They think a scheming confidence game will win our hearts so they can loot our public school money behind our backs before heading down the road to the next state to repeat the process.

I think they’re wrong and that we see right through their con game. I think they underestimate the resilience of Oklahomans to the ploys of outsiders.

I pray we resist them when they come to town singing their fear-inspiring tunes and that we stand to support our public schoolchildren.