Let’s just get this out on the table: ┬áThe view I take in this post is entirely my own, does not necessarily reflect that of my employer or any other professional affiliation, and may be quite unpopular among many people I know and respect.

I’m not interested in popularity.

Several years ago, the Oklahoma state legislature allowed the formation charter schools. Designed in part to create models for successful reform, they had the (perhaps) unintended consequence of creating an unfair competitive environment in public education. Charter schools in Oklahoma are allowed to operate free of the constraints of many of the myriad unfunded mandates state lawmakers have handed down over the years. Public schools are required to comply with a dizzying array of rules, including things like mandatory vision screening for elementary age students. While most are laudable notions, they have associated costs in terms of money, time, and administrative oversight. It adds up to an incredible amount of resource allocation which, even when well-intentioned, often sidetracks the ultimate mission of learning and handicap opportunities for meaningful innovation.

Senate Bill 834, authored by Sen. John Ford (R-Bartlesville) and Rep. Tad Jones (R-Claremore) allows local school boards to choose to ignore many of those unfunded state mandates when they don’t make sense for the local district. It does not direct or require local school boards to do anything except continue to comply with certain, existing state requirements related to school board member continuing education, employee background checks, personnel evaluations, graduation requirements, and teacher certification. And of course, there are still standards districts must meet regarding accreditation for the State Department of Education and organizations like the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. If Senate Bill 834 were signed into law as written and amended today, this is what districts would be required by law to change:

1. Nothing
2. Nothing
3. Nothing

Does it mean that a local district COULD elect to change its collective bargaining process or salary scale? It does, but consider that it also puts school districts in a position to now compete for the best teaching talent. For example, there has historically been little or no incentive for local boards to pay teachers more than the minimum salary requirements because if they didn’t, they knew nobody else would either. And because administrators are so strapped by state mandates, there has been insufficient flexibility in the budgeting process to allow it. Would Bartlesville’s (the district where my wife teaches) school board, in its stated quest to be a great school district, choose to create a working environment that attracts the best teachers in the state through working conditions, compensation, and curricular freedom; or create an adversarial environment that causes teachers to leave in favor of better jobs in districts that choose to compete for the best? Which would local citizens, parents, and business leaders demand (and enforce through board elections)? Hint: Think Texas versus Oklahoma on an intra-state level.

But then, why should we create so much potential for disparity in the quality of education by allowing some school districts to be “better” than others? Such an argument unfortunately assumes that local school boards and administrators aren’t first and fundamentally interested in creating the best possible learning environment. I don’t believe that is the case with most school board members (unpaid volunteers) and administrators. I do believe that there are incompetent, ill-intentioned, and malfeasant school board members and administrators out there, and that they need to go away mercilessly. A fair, competitive playing field is prerequisite for the elimination of these bad actors. By allowing local school districts more local control Senate Bill 834 strips the unfair advantages charter schools have over traditional public schools and creates new opportunities for meaningful school improvement through healthy competition.

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