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Choice Challenging Schools' Status Quo

Bobby Ross Jr. Published: January 24, 1999

His proposal would provide an escape for students in Oklahoma's worst-performing schools, he said.

The governor said he sympathizes with Oklahomans who want vouchers for everyone.

"Realistically, this Legislature in its best days might consider public school choice, and in a stretch, vouchers from the worst-performing schools," Keating said.

"So far, this Legislature has been hostile even to public school choice, much less vouchers."

To the contrary, House Speaker Loyd Benson said the Democrats support school choice. Their plan includes charter schools, which were defeated two years ago. Charter schools are autonomous public schools that free organizers from many government rules and regulations.

As for vouchers?

"If you're talking about taking public money and allowing people to use it for private education, without private schools having any obligation to take all kinds of students, I'm opposed to it," said Benson, D-Frederick.

Not Clear-Cut

On a national level, the voucher issue defies clear-cut conservative/liberal and Democratic/Republican divisions, as typified by the many inner-city blacks and Hispanics who support vouchers.

"As a parent who has a child in Oklahoma City schools, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that some schools in my area are substandard," said used-car dealer Johnnie Young, a black Democrat whose son, Johnnie Jr., attends Moon Middle School.

Vouchers could give inner- city children access to the quality of education offered in suburban districts and private schools, Young said.

But many conservatives, including Brandon Dutcher, a frequently quoted critic of Oklahoma public schools, oppose vouchers. They fear government money could bring government strings.

"We'd hate to see private schools corrupted and sort of lured onto the plantation by this offer of free money," said Dutcher, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs research director.

At the federal level, U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Norman, has fought for vouchers to benefit low-income areas. But U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., told an anti-voucher rally recently that the same folks who wanted to close public schools after desegregation "have changed the name, but the game is still the same."

Last summer, President Clinton vetoed a $7 million plan to offer 2,000 District of Columbia students vouchers worth up to $3,200 each.

In the November general election, Colorado voters soundly defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have launched the nation's most far-reaching program of public support for families placing children in private or parochial schools.

In Edgewood, Texas, outside San Antonio, the privately funded Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation is providing $50 million in vouchers to poor children, hoping to prove private schools can educate students better than struggling public ones.

The Oklahoman asked readers earlier this month to share their views on tax-funded vouchers. About 300 readers responded by telephone, e-mail and letter.

Most indicated support for vouchers, but arguments were passionate on both sides.

"Some of the things that are being taught in today's public schools are an outrage, and I would never allow my children to be a part of such things," said voucher supporter Keith Frutiger of Edmond.

"Not only is the curriculum struggling, the morals, values and beliefs that are being bestowed upon our children are quite pitiful."

But Judy Sing of Macomb opposes vouchers.

"Something needs to be done, but vouchers are not the solution," Sing said. "By using them, we are admitting we supply lousy education to some.

"Why not improve the education for everybody? All kids deserve it."

Fair Competition?

Andrea Johnson contemplated sending her son Brandon to one of Oklahoma City's public middle schools.

The idea terrified her.

A former school cafeteria worker, Johnson said she knows what happens to children caught in the gang culture.

"Baggy britches and all that become a part of their lifestyles - even good kids," she said.

Private school became an option when she heard about the Oklahoma Scholarship Fund.

Last year, the private fund awarded 50 scholarships to low-income families. An additional 450 families applied for scholarships, but funds were not available.

"I get calls every day, but there's more demand than we can help," said Della Sebring, Oklahoma Scholarship Fund executive director.

Oklahoma taxpayers spent $4,306 per child in the public schools in 1996-97, the last year for which state Education Department figures are available.

But taxpayers who don't consider the public schools an option must pay again for private school tuition or to home-school their children.

Why not infuse the public school system with competition - and let students "vote with their feet," as Keating puts it?

Competition would be fine, said Wewoka High School Principal Steve Knight - if it were fair competition.

"They can shut their doors when they're full; we can't," Knight said. "If the playing field were level, I would be the first one to sign up for school vouchers. But the truth is, it is not level."

In a column titled "Who's Afraid of Competition?" Kay Floyd wrote about vouchers in this month's Oklahoma School Board Journal. Floyd is the school boards association's board development and governance director.

"Could it be that the people who actually fear competition ... are the private school operators?" she wrote.

"After all, those private schools might just go out of business because they charge tuition and must compete for students with schools that offer a free and appropriate education to every child."

Private schools must convince people public schools are failing so they can find people to pay increasing tuitions, she suggested.

But Putnam City School Board member Melinda Johnson has a different perspective on vouchers.

The Putnam City board recently voted 3-2 to oppose vouchers. But Johnson and fellow board member Sue Sullivan refused to support the anti-voucher resolution.

Johnson, who teaches in the Midwest City-Del City School District, said people accuse public educators of hiding behind inferior schools.

"I couldn't disagree with that statement more," she said.

"Bring it on, folks. You can't beat what we've got to offer."

Happy Mom

Andrea Johnson couldn't be happier with the choice she made.

Brandon is making straight A's and is a leader on the True Vine Christian basketball team. Braylon, who has a learning disability, is progressing at a proper pace.

"My kids know more about the Bible than I do," the Paradise Baptist Church member said.

"I wanted that religious aspect to the school. If they get it while they're young, they won't forget. Even when they get older, they won't forget."

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