John Thompson: Oklahoma City Schools Under Siege by Reformers

John Thompson, teacher and historian, writes here about the invasion of the privatizers in Oklahoma City.


Every January, the start of National School Choice Week marks the beginning of The Oklahoman editorials in support of charter and private school expansion. Given the $16.5 million grant by Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education to the Walton-funded Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, and the state’s charter school conversion law, which allows the state to override school systems that turn down charter applications, this annual event marks the beginning of an increasingly dangerous school privatization season.
This year’s editorials in favor of school choice expansion indicate an even more worrisome assault on public schools is likely. A former Oklahoma City Public School System (OKCPS) board member wants to break the 46,000 student system into an overwhelmingly black district, a predominantly Hispanic district, and a more affluent no-majority district. The most extreme 2018 proposal was recently made by City Councilman David Greenwell. He wants to convert the OKCPS into a city-sponsored charter district!
The Oklahoman subsequently editorialized that the resignation of the OKCPS superintendent, Aurora Lora, illustrates the “sort of churn” that makes it “nearly impossible” to “move the needle” on school improvement for the 85% low-income district. It didn’t mention that Lora is a graduate of the Broad Residency in Urban Education. Neither does it mention the reasons why educators opposed the micromanaging she was taught by Broad, and how Broad sees the cultivation of churn as a feature, not a flaw, of its corporate governance.
The editorial called for “truly significant change from the status quo” where “all ideas should at least be considered.” It then buried the lede, Brent Bushey, head of the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center said his group backs ‘quality options’ for students and that he hopes Greenwell’s comments lead to more talk about more quality options.”
In the disrespected field of education, it isn’t unusual for privatizers, to say that “everything should be on the table.” But, how many Americans would want a Commander in Chief who says he won’t “rule anything in or out” in terms of nuclear confrontations?
Okay, given Donald Trump’s mindset, that’s a touchy metaphor, so let’s use a medical analogy: Would we want a medical system that is free to conduct whatever experiments it wants, or that would institutionalize risky procedures in order to treat certain conditions without a careful study of their unintended consequences? 
The corporate reform Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, and a steady stream of supporters of the so-called “portfolio model” of reform, continue to promote charter expansion. But I’ve yet to hear of a portfolio proponent who would put the inherent dangers of their plan on the table for public discussion. Whether they believe it or not, charter advocates still claim that their schools can serve the “same” kids as neighborhood schools, and that a robust accountability system can somehow prevent the mass exiting of students who make it harder to raise test scores.
I don’t expect true believers in charter portfolios to get into the weeds of school improvement and explain why they could succeed in Oklahoma City with the models that failed in Tennessee, Nevada, and elsewhere, even though our charters would have at least 50% per student less funding than those of other states. Neither do I anticipate an explanation of why Indianapolis’s well-funded “reforms,” that are being marketed for OKC, have produced student performance gains that are the same as the OKCPS “status quo.” But, shouldn’t they acknowledge the downsides of the so-called successes that our business leaders have been hearing promoted in private discussions? Denver is finally admitting that its achievement gap is one of the worst in the nation, and New Orleans and Memphis can’t deny that they are third and first, nationally, in “disconnected youth” or kids out of school, without jobs.
I hope, however, that OKC leaders will ask whether a policy, which is likely to result in thousands of school-aged kids walking the streets during the day, should be “off the table.” I would also hope they would ask why Tulsa’s Deborah Gist, and her team of Broadies, have failed so miserably. Tulsa’s poverty rate is below that of Oklahoma City, and their schools have benefited from huge investments by the Gates Foundation and other national and local edu-philanthropists, but only two urban districts have produced lower test score growth from 3rd to 8th grade. Perhaps we need a conversation about why the test-driven, choice-driven, technocratic model pushed by the Billionaires Boys Club has been such a failure. 
The cornerstone of accountability-driven, competition-driven corporate reform was once called “earned autonomy.” Now, the basically same concept is pushed with a kinder and gentler spin. The idea is to reward schools that exhibit high test scores with the freedom to offer holistic learning. Regardless of what you call it, the plan is to impose top-down, teach-to-the-test, even scripted instruction, on lower performing schools. The approach is designed to stack the competition between choice and neighborhood schools in favor of charters.
I want to stress, however, that I support a public conversation. After I wrote a rebuttal to the former OKCPS board member seeking to break up the system, he and I have had a couple of hours of discussions. He doesn’t want more segregation but he’s tired of the micromanaging. We both want more site based management. After all, most educators and stakeholders who I know are tired of the social engineering imposed by Broadies.
But the conversation must follow the principle of, “First, Do No Harm.” We must not treat our children like lab rats. All win-win policies should be on the table, but we shouldn’t contemplate discredited theories such as earned autonomy, which actually means earned dignity, that may benefit some while severely damaging other students. For instance, do we really want to repeat the all-charter NOLA experiment if it means that 18% of young people will be out of school and out of the workforce? Should advocates be empowered to deny autonomy to schools they are competing with? Should today’s well-funded market-driven activists be empowered to permanently privatize our future children’s public education system? 

from sarah

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