Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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Even as other parents struggle to both work and ensure their children are cared for during an “online only” school day, the children of teachers in the Norman school district will be educated in the physical classroom, according to a district document.

Norman is not the only district to provide special treatment to the children of its employees. One legal expert says such arrangements may be illegal.

Norman officials plan to provide instruction through online or distance means for at least a portion of the year. Under Norman’s back-to-school plan the district will shift, potentially week to week, from offering in-person instruction at school buildings to an online-only platform. The shift is based on whether Cleveland County’s per-capita COVID-19 infection rate reaches the “orange” category on the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s state map, which is updated each Friday.

Norman is among a small group of districts that opted to go fully online for part of the school year. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, just 7.5 percent of districts have chosen to go wholly online. Another 75.5 percent of districts are providing in-person instruction, and the rest are doing a mix of the two, such as “A/B schedules” where students are in-person part of the week and learning remotely the rest of the week.

For many families, the challenge of distance learning is significant since parents must either find another adult to watch their children during the day or forgo income to stay home from work.

The special treatment given to the children of school staff has not gone unnoticed by other parents.

A Norman Public Schools document shows one group of parents is being exempted from the financial pressures created by the district’s online-only mandate.

“While the district is in remote/virtual learning, NPS Remote Learning Centers (RLCs) will be available for elementary-aged students whose parents are district employees,” the document states.

The centers became available to district employees’ children starting Aug. 24 when the district reopened for the current school year in an online-only format. The document states that the centers “will be staffed by district personnel and will provide free care and remote learning assistance for elementary children ages 4-11. Participating children will be assigned to the home school they typically attend.”

Norman teachers’ children will be kept in groups of eight students with “two personnel assisting them with remote learning each day,” the school district document states.

The document also reveals that teachers’ children “will be given outdoor time and other ‘brain breaks’ in self-contained or outdoor spaces during the day.”

Norman Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment on the program.

The Norman program appears similar to one in the Oklahoma City school district, where teachers and other staff are allowed to bring their children to physical school sites and the district provides adult supervision of those pupils’ on-site “distance” learning.

The special treatment given to the children of school staff has not gone unnoticed by other parents. But the perception of special treatment may be the least of the problems created by the program.

Benjamin Lepak, a legal fellow at the 1889 Institute who previously provided counsel to 24 elected officials across three counties while working for a district attorney, said such arrangements appear to violate the Oklahoma Constitution.

In a recent blog post, Lepak noted the Oklahoma Constitution has two provisions that require the state “to maintain a system of free public schools open to all children in the state” and that the Oklahoma Supreme Court has found those provisions require “some degree of uniformity and equality of opportunity” among students, are intended to extend “equal rights and privileges” to all students, and are designed “to insure uniformity of opportunity to all children of the state to receive at least the degree of instruction embraced by the minimum program.”

In addition, the Oklahoma Constitution contains an anti-gift clause that “prohibits the government from gifting public funds to private entities and individuals.”

“This provision is supposed to prevent cronyism, best understood as government-granted privilege,” Lepak wrote. “It’s been interpreted to ban even altruistic-seeming expenditures of public funds, such as support for worthy charities like Meals on Wheels and the VFW.

“How is free childcare for teachers not a taxpayer-funded gift?” Lepak continued. “Teachers are not providing any additional service on top of what they are already contracted to do—teach. They are already compensated for this service, and childcare is not part of the compensation, last I checked. From this former government lawyer’s vantage, OKCPS-provided childcare looks like an unconstitutional, gratuitous perk for teachers.”

Lepak noted there is little case law “directly on point” for the current situation but added that “there is no doubt that OKCPS is trampling all over the spirit of the law, if not the letter.”

One parent, granted anonymity due to concerns about school retaliation, said an in-person program for teachers’ children also undermines the argument school officials made when deciding to mandate distance learning.

“It’s very frustrating,” the parent said, “since it’s obvious that no one actually believes schools are a danger to kids.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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