There is nothing that gets me more excited than the start of a new legislative session here in the state of Oklahoma. I love escorting my children to the capitol building downtown just to be in the midst of the life and hubbub that fills the air. The groups that are protesting, the groups that are lobbying, staff members running from one office to another, the intense faces of elected officials that suddenly smile when they realize they’ve encountered a constituent, the panic of the budget, the push for new legislation – I love it all.
Thus, I was thrilled to find in my mail box last week a card from my state senator asking my thoughts on how to fund a teacher pay raise. My children and I sat in his office a year ago and found him to be a pleasant man. (We are new to Oklahoma so we are still getting to know people here.) He’s a man who holds my values and beliefs, which are conservative in nature. And please don’t think of me as special, the card I received in the mail was a survey that everyone in his district was sent. Our senator, who is a fellow homeschool parent, shares my passion for quality education. I may choose to homeschool my own children, but it is my sincere desire to see the children in our public schools have better than what exists now.
Unfortunately, similar to last year’s session, the Oklahoma legislature will wrangle over the need for HUGE budget cuts in spite of the screaming citizens to pay our teachers more. Now, I certainly agree that teachers here are shamefully underpaid. They deserve better for all their education, experience, hard work, and undeniable responsibility. However, school budgets were slashed this last session that ended in May 2016. Schools closed down a week early, art programs were eliminated, music programs were cut, and many districts sent out surveys to parents asking if a four-day school week would be beneficial. The reality is that the schools here are a mess due to economic struggles, and the children suffer because more and more educational programs that are viewed as “extra-curricular” are cut just to keep our kids reading and doing math.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not throwing stones. I think everyone is doing the very best they can. I know the Oklahoma City Public School District Superintendent personally, and she is a champion. She’s hard working, innovative, and does amazingly well with what she has been given to work with. I am thankful that I don’t have her job. However, despite everyone’s tireless efforts, it would be my assessment that the system is broken. And this humble writer is not sure that it can be fixed.
Therefore, as a conservative, this system’s failure actually excites me to no end. Maybe public education was never meant to be the main option for educating children. Maybe public education is our nation’s largest entitlement program, and we just can’t seem to figure out how to get out from under its control. Maybe the free market could do better and now is the perfect time to create new, challenging and innovative options that would transform education as we know it.
For example, I know of one church, The Gate Church, in our city that is giving it their best to fill in the gaps created by the lack in public schools. Given that so many schools had to drop their performing arts programs, this church stepped up and said, “If the schools can’t provide what our children need, then we will.” So for $45 a semester, students can enroll in dance classes or drama classes that meet once a week. Currently, the dance program has approximately 200 students, and 75% of the participants are NOT members of the church. And let me just say that $45 a semester is NOTHING. Most dance studios want more than that a month, plus registration fees, recital fees, and costume fees. Trust me, I know. In the future, I am confident this compassionate local church will implement more art programs to offer to the community.
So what would happen if every church in town found a need in our public schools and filled it? What would happen if one church launched a robotics club? What if another church offered a quality music program? What if businesses around town created intern programs for middle and high school students that have an interest in business? What if a tech company partnered with a local high school to help fund computer programs within the schools in exchange for students that could work in these tech companies? What if restaurants offered culinary arts classes to students? Students get class credit while restaurants get free labor. The possibilities are endless.
Is it possible to ween ourselves off the public schools by having private enterprise partner with private education so that school choice is not just choice for the wealthy? Could we actually create unique educational tracks for each student since every student has unique gifts abilities and passions? This kind of innovation will, of course, throw a huge wrench in our standardized, one-size-fits-all, we-have-to-assess-progress-for-each-student-the-same-or-it’s-not-fair kind of thinking, but I am convinced that it is time to dream a little in the midst of this economic crisis to see how we might tear down some of our old, broken, socialist systems so that new, better, free-market systems can replace them. The generations to come and our nation will be better for it. I am sure of that.
photo credit: G A R N E T Hertz/Wakkary Pecha Kucha – 2016 Feb 04, Emily Carr via photopin (license)