Angel Worth is a graduate of The University of Oklahoma. She is in her first year as a freshman English teacher, and she decided to attend the Summit to engage in meaningful dialogue and better understand those who support “school choice.”
Into the Lions’ Den
This past Thursday, the Oklahoma School Choice Summit and Expo was held at Oklahoma City Community College. The summit began at 4:00, and after ushering straggling students out of my classroom, grading a handful of late papers, and prepping the next day’s lesson plan, I strode out of the high school brimming with both fire and fear.
Upon arriving at OCCC, I sat in my car for a full fifteen minutes, staring through the windshield at the signs directing the public to the Performing Arts Center. I’m a first year teacher, so feeling out of my depth is no rarity for me. However, the feeling that gripped me as I walked up the sidewalk and into the summit was a different kind of displacement. I’d never really considered the phrase, “into the lion’s den,” until I stumbled over my name at the check-in table and allowed a young, smiling woman to slip a yellow band around my wrist. Dozens of people stood across the lobby. Most were dressed in tailored business suits and dresses, and nearly all wore a yellow scarf draped around their necks. The scarves were handed out as people checked in, but because I did not register in advance, I was not offered one.
After looking over the itinerary I had picked up at the check-in table, I picked the three breakout sessions I was interested in attending, and I made my way to the adjacent building.
Charter School “101”
Brent Bushey, the Executive Director of Oklahoma Public Resource Center, facilitated the “Charter School 101” session. Bushey is a tall, but soft spoken man. He wore a wrinkled navy blue suit, and he shuffled from one foot to the other while clasping and unclasping his hands throughout his presentation. Using charter school jargon, Bushey explained the process for how charter schools are opened, and in the last twenty minutes of the session, Bushey opened the floor to questions.
I searched the room for a friendly face, trying to identify if there was a Public Education ally in the room, but I was alone. The slogan on the banner at the back of the room caught my eye, “Every Child. Every Choice. Every Chance.” I took a shaky breath and raised my hand to ask for clarification on concerns I’ve heard echoed throughout the Public Education community.
“How do charter schools budget the money that the state allocates to them, and how transparent is that budget?” I asked. I could hear my own voice quavering. After stating that charter schools are tracked the same way public schools are, Bushey shared a surprising statistic.
“50-70% of charter schools that are closed are closed due to financial problems,” he said.
“So charter schools close most often due to financial mismanagement?” The words had left my mouth before I could bring them back.
Bushey shuffled, “It’s less an issue of mismanagement and more so financial incompetence.”
Perhaps to Bushey incompetence sounds better than mismanagement, but, as an English teacher, I couldn’t help but be appalled at the connotation associated with a word like incompetence. Is it supposed to be comforting that charter schools across the nation are shut down because they’re too incompetent to properly write a budget? Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, public schools across the state continue to function as their budgets are slashed and their funds are bleeding because of the “incompetence” of our state legislature to do the same thing. That’s a difference between public and private schools that is worth noting: in the face of anything, public schools have the resilience and commitment to their students to keep their doors open.
Emboldened, I asked another question, “When comparing public, charter, and private schools, the concept of attrition is almost never acknowledged on behalf of charter and private schools. As a public school teacher,” I glanced around the room, “I feel like there are several steps taken before a student is removed from public school. Charter schools have much higher attrition rates, which makes me wonder what process do charter and private schools follow to have students removed from their programs? And what liberties do charter schools take in admitting students with learning disabilities and disciplinary issues?”
Pivoting away from the topic of attrition, Bushey instead decided to address the latter half of the question. Bushey identified himself as a past teacher of students with disabilities and also as a father of a daughter with Down Syndrome. He shared an anecdote of his experience when he first moved to Oklahoma. He called a charter school to see if they would accept his daughter, and they said yes. He then asked them if they had a Special Education program, to which they said no.
“This is where it becomes a matter of school choice,” Bushey said. “I could have sent my daughter to that charter school, but instead I chose a school that was the best fit for her.”
What I got out of Bushey’s story was that a charter school was willing to accept his daughter despite not having the necessary program to ensure her success, which begs the question: what are IEP and 504 programs like at charter and private schools? Are these schools in compliance with IDEA? Do these schools know what IDEA is? *cough cough DeVos*
Advocacy for School Leaders
Before I could ask anymore, the session was over, and I was on my way to a session called “Advocacy for School Leaders.” The session was facilitated by Matt Ball of CMA Strategies and former Representative Hopper Smith of Strategic Resource Consulting. The goal was to teach those present how to elevate those in favor of school choice from “passive stakeholders” to “active advocates.”
Outside of Matt Ball referencing Waiting for Superman as an informative source on charter schools, what caught my attention most took the form of an older man named Charlie Daniels, who I later found out is the Vice President of the Opportunity Scholarship Fund. With both Senator Pederson (District 19) and Senator Rader (District 39) in attendance, Daniels provided scathing criticism of local school boards.
“The school board is the captive of administration,” Daniels said. “Most of them are sinkers; you cannot change their mind with a bomb.”
A few moments later, Daniels went on to say, “You’ve gotta go beyond the local school board. They’re going to be your enemy.”
It was at this point that Hopper Smith became visibly uncomfortable as he nervously laughed and claimed that “enemy is a strong word.” Daniels went on to tell about a time that he spent a day at the Capitol going from office to office of elected officials. He said that one time, he stopped in at a legislator’s office whose district Daniels was not a part of. Daniels told the legislator that he should vote in favor of whatever school choice bill was on the docket that session, and the legislator responded by saying, “Thank God. I’ve been getting hundreds of phone calls from Public Education people all day, and now if I vote for this I can say I’ve got some cover.”
It’s good to know that our legislators will disregard the voices of hundreds of constituents in favor of one person’s opinion if it serves the legislator’s own self-interest. In case the legislator has forgotten, their jobs exist to serve their constituents. Their jobs do not exist to serve themselves.
Communities of Color Panel
The next session on the list was one called “Communities of Color Panel.” Before entering the room, however, I had an informative mini-session in the form of a conversation I overheard between former State Superintendent of Education Janet Barresi and keynote speaker Dr. Steve Perry.
I initially became aware of the conversation when the words “Betsy DeVos could be good for us,” came out of Barresi’s mouth, but my favorite part of the conversation was when Barresi complained about the “quality of educators that colleges of education are producing.”
Dr. Perry guffawed loudly and replied, “That whole sentence is an oxymoron.”
It took everything in me not to step forward and identify myself as a public school teacher. Instead, I took deep breaths, pictured the goddess of education that is current Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, and followed Barresi into the next session.
The communities of color panel was comprised of Dr. Steve Perry, Phillip Gover of Sovereign Schools Project, and Marilinda Garcia of the Libre Initiative. I most looked forward to this session because I wanted to see how the panel addressed the research that suggests charter and private schools compound the issue of systemic racism. Instead, Dr. Perry said in his opening statement, “We are taking a system that was designed in 1635 that was designed to keep certain communities apart...and has so effectively done it, that it almost seems natural.” Dr. Perry went on to suggest that teachers are the hostages of unions to which we pay our ransom (union dues), and that the public school system is too traditional and racist.
Now, I acknowledge that there is inequity in the public school system. Schools that are located in areas of dense poverty are attended by predominately students of color, and these schools often have lower graduation rates. However, the solution is not to open up charter schools so that portions of the student bodies in lower-income schools are pulled out. What about the students who are left behind? The students who don’t make it off the wait list? They’re left to attend a school that has even less funding. In Oklahoma City, in particular, these students would be left in classrooms that are filled with unqualified and uncertified teachers because of a massive teacher shortage. The solution to this problem is not to open more schools, it’s to fund the school that stands, starting with teacher salaries, to ensure quality teachers are present to provide a quality education. As much as the summit reiterated that the student is the most important part of education, they must recognize that students’ education starts with their teacher.
Before the last session dismissed, the room was notified that a protestor, allegedly, pulled the fire alarm in the theater to prevent the second part of the program from happening. Dr. Perry laughed joyously at this.
“I’ve been to a lot of cities, man,” he said. “And ain’t no city where they’re pulling fire alarms. To those protestors: you showed us that we hurt you by hollering. Keep hollering because we’re going to hurt you some more.”
This was met with whoops and hollers as those in the room stood to begin their walk back to the Performing Arts Center.
It just so happened that I was behind Janet Barresi on the way back to the Performing Arts Center, so I was lucky enough to see her reaction when we reached the doors to find dozens of pro-Public Education people standing in line, waiting to be admitted to the summit.
Barresi rolled her eyes and shared a look with the woman who had been accompanying her, and they pushed their way through the line to get into the lobby. As I had already checked in, I followed.
When I reached the front of the line I realized that those who were waiting to check-in were being turned away. Most of them clutched Event Brite registration confirmation tickets in their hands, and one man at the front of line began to get irate.
I asked one of the summit event’s coordinators why the group of people waiting to get in were being denied access to the public event. He claimed that those organizing the summit had caught wind of a protest group on Facebook, and so they cross referenced the list of people who were associated with the Facebook group and the people who had registered for the event, and the summit’s organizers canceled the group’s tickets.
I found out later, however, that several pro-Public Education people were turned away who had no affiliation with the protest group on Facebook, which leads one to wonder what sources the summit organizers were using to decide who could and who could not attend a “public forum”?
I did not stay for the entirety of the main program that was held in the Performing Arts Center’s theater because I needed to go to the store to buy supplies for the project my students were doing the following day. I did, however, stay long enough to hear Rep. Jason Nelson moderate a panel comprised of Sen. Stanislawski, Sen. Loveless, Rep. Chuck Strohm, and Rep. Calvey.
The panel was essentially five men tossing around school choice buzzwords to incite applause from the audience. I’m currently teaching rhetoric to my freshman, and I was almost tempted to start recording the panel in order to have my students analyze and identify the heavy use of pathos and the noticeable lack of ethos and logos in each of the legislator’s arguments for school choice.
As I drove away from the Oklahoma School Choice summit Thursday night, I reflected on what it means to be a public school teacher in the current political climate. Oklahoma teachers have been fighting the state legislator for many years to protect Public Education, and now that fight might find itself carried to the national level with the nomination of Betsy DeVos.
With every anti-Public Ed proposed legislative bill that I read, I feel my faith in the future of Oklahoma public school’s diminish. After leaving an environment where public school teachers like myself were categorized as union thugs, racist, selfish, and inept, my passion for public school teaching was reignited. Since Thursday, I’ve thought back to Dr. Perry’s words again and again, “You showed us that we hurt you by hollering. Keep hollering because we’re going to hurt you some more.”
Dr. Perry and many of the other speakers at the summit are not from Oklahoma, so perhaps they won’t understand. However, I feel it necessary to warn them not to mistake determination for being “hurt.” Don’t be so foolish as to misinterpret grit for fear. The war on Public Education has been waging in Oklahoma for many years now, and though it’s been trying and adverse, public schools and their teachers have persevered—and we will keep on persevering.