A leading school choice advocate is encouraging Oklahoma state lawmakers to look at model legislation creating Safety Opportunity Scholarships (SOS) for students in elementary and secondary schools.
In a policy briefing at the state capitol last month, Vicki Alger of the Independent Women’s Forum said her proposal would put policy heft behind language in federal legislation that theoretically allows parents to take children out of the most unsafe public schools.
Alger’s intent is to give meaning to an obscure few lines in federal legislation allowing parents to exercise choice to get their children out of “persistently dangerous schools.”
Alger said the provision for an “Unsafe School Choice Option” allows students to transfer to another public school “if their current public school meets the state definition of persistently dangerous.”
However, “because states define unsafe schools so narrowly, less than 50 public schools out of nearly 100,000 nationwide are labeled persistently dangerous each year,” she said.
Not a single Oklahoma school meets the current definitions for danger.
Despite the absence of schools explicitly designated dangerous, administrators and reform advocates have in recent years scrutinized bullying and other abuse in schools.
Alger said she strives “not to sensationalize” the data, adding that statistical analysis proves “schools, overall, are safe.” Fatal incidents in schools have declined since 1992, mirroring the downward trend for juvenile violence found in crime reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Still, Alger said “data is of little comfort if you are stuck in one of the worst schools.”
Alger advocates for broader access to parental and student choice in education. She said “education money should follow the child.”
“Already 6 million kids are in choice programs approved through the U.S. Department of Education,” she said.
In those programs, including those allowing students to access private education programs, “the focus is on districts and systems making decisions, and not on kids,” she said.
“I would like parents to be in the driver’s seat. Tax credits and scholarship programs are good because they put the parents in charge.”
Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, told CapitolBeatOK in an email that “Our public schools should be safe for all students. Our resources should go to help all children, not just a select few.”
The union has opposed previous parental choice efforts.
Endorsement of the concept in Alger’s model legislation came from a spokesman for Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.
“Every child in the state must be educated in a safe environment,” Tricia Pemberton, communications specialist with the state Department of Education, told CapitolBeatOK. “While we urge schools to focus on creating and maintaining a safe environment through appropriate and effective policy and enforcement, Superintendent Barresi believes that each parent should have the right to make appropriate choices for their child’s education.”
Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of CapitolBeatOK.
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