OKCPS, KIPP compromise

Monday was a great night for Oklahoma City Public Schools when the OKCPS board rejected KIPP charter school’s proposed takeover of the Martin Luther King Jr. neighborhood school.

Superintendent Aurora Lora deserves great praise for extricating the OKCPS from a bitter conflict and negotiating a common sense deal. Ultimately, the board made the right decision for the right reasons: It voted for stability while also backing the district’s incoming leader, and it did so in the right way — through a compromise.

The decision respects the voices of patrons and educators. It must also be noted that KIPP supporters responded graciously. Most KIPP patrons are primarily concerned about their own children instead of attacking adult opponents. After Monday’s meeting, several leaders who sought to use the charter-conversion law to defeat the school system and the teachers union expressed a willingness to move forward in a collaborative manner.

Maybe they will or maybe they won’t continue to push win-lose competition between schools as the path to educational improvement. Maybe they will or maybe they won’t work with educators who support win-win policies.

Regardless, there seems to be an opportunity to seek out areas of agreement.

‘No harm, no foul’

The most important part of the compromise was that the forced conversion of a neighborhood elementary school into a No Excuses charter was rejected. In return, KIPP will be welcomed into a planning process, and it will be provided a building. Weird as it sounds, KIPP asked for the right to temporarily co-locate in the empty parts of the MLK building, and the district probably was wise in agreeing.

Further, KIPP will now potentially expand from 300 to 1,200 students. Apparently, it hopes to do so by recruiting outside the OKCPS, so it won’t just be trying to lure the top-performing kids from the shrinking student population on the near-eastside of Oklahoma City. If KIPP meets its seemingly improbable goal, congratulations will be in order. If it doesn’t, that’s a “no harm, no foul” situation.

Three keys for moving past vitriol

The question of whether Oklahoma City can move beyond the vitriol of the last five months depends on three interrelated issues:

  • how the charter-conversion law is handled;
  • the policies that the OKCPS adopts and how well it implements them;
  • and whether the schools get access to the resources necessary to improve our highest-poverty schools.

The first issue depends upon whether we can relearn the wisdom that “my opponent is my opponent, not my enemy.” Edu-politics is a contact sport, and elbows will be thrown, but it is wrong to take your opponent’s knee out. The uninvited co-location of KIPP middle school into MLK elementary is a classic example of an elbow to the jaw of patrons who have been defending their school. The mass charter conversion plan announced in February, however, was an attempt to cripple the teachers union and the OKCPS. Now is the time for the OKCPS board and other community leaders to announce that they will oppose future charter-conversion efforts that are not rooted in an organic, grassroots process initiated by local school patrons and educators.

Second, the OKCPS must shift gears from the test-driven, remediation-driven pedagogies state and federal governments virtually imposed. Now that the state has repealed the mandated test-driven teacher evaluations and altered the law governing end-of-instruction tests, OKCPS can invest in the socio-emotional supports necessary to teach in an engaging manner and for mastery. It can reject the discredited theory that holding teachers accountable for measurable increases in student performance can drive school improvement. The OKCPS can say publicly what most educators express privately: Education in our high-challenge schools must become a team effort. We must continue to improve pre-kindergarten, but the real gains come from early education, from pre-natal care to the age of 3.

The school system should join with 25 by 25 and at least initiate pilot projects that break down the silos that separate public schooling, early education, health and mental health, and other social services. Also, the district must reach out to Smart Start, the United Way and other local organizations to devise and implement early warning systems to combat chronic absenteeism.

Don’t forget the money

The third issue is likely to be a downer, so I will just touch on it. We can adopt the full set of holistic, evidence-based pedagogies, but little progress will be made if they are not funded properly.

If the charter-conversion battles continue, the chances for passing a school bond issue will be nil. If Oklahomans continue to starve our schools, the OKCPS will likely revert to its perennial quest for cheap and easy quick fixes for complex problems.

If we can bury the hatchet, however, we can leverage the resulting unity for out-of-state funding of pilot programs for providing wraparound services in our poorest schools. There are no guarantees, but MAPS for Kids showed that it is possible for liberals and conservatives to come together and craft humane, science-based policies while also raising taxes.

We can do it again.