NO doubt Tulsa Union schools Superintendent Cathy Burden had some adrenaline pumping when she said these words: “We feel totally justified at this point that we have fought a battle for all public education that needed to be fought, and we're very pleased with the outcome today.”
The reason for Burden's victory statement was a district court ruling this week that deemed unconstitutional a state law allowing children with disabilities to attend private schools at state expense. Painting it as a victory for public education is a stretch.
Let's recap a bit. The passage of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Act in 2010 was designed to help children with disabilities who might be better served in a private school setting.
The law was not altogether an indictment of public schools. To be certain, many schools need to do a better job of educating students with disabilities. But especially in the case of children with severe or multiple disabilities, public schools often find themselves hard pressed to afford the sort of first-class services any parent would reasonably want for their child. Special education teachers also can be hard to find.
But when the law passed, we saw little to no evidence that districts were asking themselves an important question: What can we do better? Instead, they turned their attention to money and how much they might lose as the bulk of the per-pupil funding plus what additional money is set aside for a student's particular disability would follow the student. Soon to follow were claims that the law created a voucher system and its supporters were out to destroy public education.
Think about that for a minute. This law benefited children with autism and other conditions and challenges that can make it difficult for them to function in a regular classroom. These are children, some of whom could receive a better education and more hope for the future with extensive help from specialists who districts often can't or won't pay for.
There's no denying that there are some in Oklahoma who would indeed embrace a voucher system. That they want a system with more and, hopefully, better choices for children is not the same as seeking the destruction of public education.
In a lawsuit, the Union and Jenks school districts argued that the Oklahoma Constitution prohibits sending public dollars to private, sectarian institutions. With little comment, the judge agreed. Lawyers for the defendants, the parents of three special-needs students, indicated they would appeal.
We fail to see how this ruling, if upheld, is a victory for public education or for children. Public education advocates lament the lack of parental involvement in schools. But when parents do get involved and ultimately determine that perhaps public education isn't the best choice for their children, all of a sudden these parents become the enemy or defendants in a lawsuit.
Parents fighting for what's best for their children — and the policymakers who support them — shouldn't be labeled enemies of public education. And suing them for looking out for their children's educational interests is anything but a victory, no matter how a judge or a superintendent might frame the issues.