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Hey, Legislature, nothing’s happening here!


Bill Bleakley December 11th, 2012

As Buffalo Springfield’s lyric of “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here” filled our ears in the ’60s, the downward spiral of public education in Oklahoma City began. Families with school-aged children began a mass exodus from the Oklahoma City Public Schools as the courts belatedly implemented the desegregation requirements of Brown v. Board of Education. They took their support for public education with them, enhancing suburban districts.

In 1971, the Legislature enacted laws authorizing public school district employees to collectively bargain. The power of employee unions in the district has grown incrementally ever since, including a teachers’ strike that shut down the district in 1979.

Although the American Federation of Teachers recently has acknowledged the need for more teacher training and accountability, implementing the fundamental changes necessary to turn around our schools seems impossible within the maze of statutory restraints protecting mediocrity.

In 2001, MAPS for Kids was developed to save and improve the failing school district, providing almost $1 billion to address aging infrastructure.

Some organizers argued for accountability within those new walls, advocating constant, independent monitoring of the district’s performance. That responsibility was given to the Oklahoma City Schools Foundation, which seems neither able nor inclined to fulfill that task.

Now, almost 12 years later, the building program nears completion, yet there appears to be no improvement in general student performance; the OKCPS district earned a D in the current grading of state school systems.

Thousands of lives have been diminished, if not ruined, by depriving its students of a meaningful education. Lacking the social and economic potential that education provides, most are challenged to become good parents, workers and citizens.

Many attempts made by well-meaning board members, educators and civic leaders to improve the district’s general performance all seem to have failed, except for some successful efforts in specific schools, indicating general solutions may exist if there is an opportunity to implement them.

Clearly, nothing is happening here in the district, so what do we do? The educational “buck” starts and stops with the Legislature because the state constitution places full responsibility on it to “establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.”

The Legislature can reform the district in any manner it chooses. So why not dissolve the Board of Education and create a commission to operate the district? The city council and the governor each could appoint two commissioners; the superintendent of public instruction could appoint the fifth member.

It then could deregulate the district from all state laws and regulations, giving the commission full authority to reorganize the district, while maintaining constitutional and federal requirements.

Our schools are challenged like most every other urban school district in the country for most of the same reasons, and we can use that either as an excuse for doing nothing or as a reason to act boldly.

The district is the city’s Achilles’ heel, holding OKC back from becoming the city we want for all our citizens. It’s intolerable to continue to deny children virtually imprisoned in our failing schools the education to which they’re entitled, functionally scarring them for life.


Bleakley is publisher of Oklahoma Gazette.

 
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