Tuesday, February 26, 2019

OCPA column: Education innovation


Education innovation
by Trent England, executive vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs

School boundary lines are moving in Oklahoma’s largest school district. A smaller district, Deer Creek, is shifting lines as well. These changes are tough on kids and on those families who purchased a house to be within a particular school’s boundaries. A child who attends one school today may wind up assigned to a different school in August.

One thing these changes have in common: they are not about what is best for each child. The only determining factor is where a child happens to live. Are we really stuck doing school this way?

Some things have to be this way. Electricity travels on wires that connect each house to a generating plant. Piped-in natural gas requires buried pipes. Utilities like these leave us with one provider based on where we live. As monopolies, they have lots of power over consumers and are heavily regulated by government.

Telephone service used to be this way. There was one provider based on which wires reached a particular house, at least until the era of cell phones. Today, we have choices. It would make no sense to assign you a cell phone carrier based on your neighborhood.

Education services are a little like telephone services. Before cars and buses, students needed a school within walking distance. Before modern technology, teaching had to be done in person. Schools were built to pack students in a room with a teacher. In the factory era, schools were designed to be education factories (and to produce good factory workers). During all this time, where we lived determine where we went to school.

Times have changed. Oklahoma’s population has grown, becoming more urban and suburban, and much more diverse. This means that while the needs of children have become more varied, most people also live within reach of multiple schools. At the same time, the inefficiency of factory-style education in diverse urban areas is becoming obvious: costs go up, outcomes go down.

Like the first cell phone providers, some disruptive schools are on the scene. Positive Tomorrows is for children whose families are homeless. Trinity School helps kids with autism and dyslexia. Families who want a rigorous classical education can choose one of three campuses, and either a full-time or part-time program, at The Academy of Classical Christian Studies.

In some cases, Oklahoma state law helps families choose these innovators. Children with special needs can receive a Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship, redirecting their state funding to attend a school like Trinity. The Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act gives a tax benefit to donors who help low-income families choose these kinds of schools.

Expanding these programs is the best way to modernize Oklahoma education. Debates over where to draw school boundary lines are vestiges of the past and reminders of how far we have left to go.

Trent England serves as the executive vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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