The School Choice Summit 2018 held Jan. 25 at Oklahoma City University was the opposite of Oklahoma City’s first summit, which took place last January at Oklahoma City Community College. The 2017 event drew a huge crowd as well as angry protesters. As was explained in an article titled, ‘Toxic’ Steve Perry should embarrass charter supporters, former charter school principal-turned-showman Perry:

… told the audience that charter supporters shouldn’t even talk with people who disagree with them. He also claimed opponents of Oklahoma City’s KIPP expansion are racists. In fact, he said people like me — who display pro-Barack Obama bumper stickers but oppose charter and voucher expansions — are as bad as the worst racists in American history.

Last year’s keynoter exemplified the worst of the blood-in-the-eye, test-driven, charter-driven school reform movement. Perry believes that the key to school improvement is replacing the “punks” defended by the “roaches (i.e. the teachers unions) and replacing them with “attractive” teachers who embrace the stressful process of high-stakes testing.

A change in tone

This year’s keynoter, Roland Martin, mostly offered an inoffensive comedy routine to a crowd of about 75. He also recalled using deductive reasoning to out-debate former President Barack Obama, whose administration drove the rapid expansion of charters but opposed vouchers.

Also this year, ChoiceMatters’ Robert M. Ruiz said that their purpose was to fight the failing education system, not attack individual teachers and principals. I disagree with Ruiz about most things, especially his misuse of data, but I respect him and his personal mission, which is:

… to help increase the health and well-being of Oklahoma’s Hispanic community through increased access to education, economic development, cultural development, and healthcare.

Ruiz is a part of a team supported by advocates of test-driven, competition-driven corporate reformers who have adopted a kinder, gentler spin in Tulsa and across the nation. I sense, however, that the change in tone at the Oklahoma City summit is sincere. I did not hear any of the false claims that charters serve the “same” students or the pretense that they can be scaled up. In fact, private school advocate Vernard Gant warned against the choice movement’s ties to education reform.

The high point of the summit was a tearful account of a Hispanic mother who pulled her children from a school in the John Marshall feeder group because of the bullying they faced. Who wouldn’t cheer when she won the lottery for a private school?

In-fighting, soul-searching takes over reformers

I suspect that the local trends are consistent with the national pattern where test-driven, charter-driven reform peaked after the Obama administration funded an over-supply of charters. Since last year’s summit, charter advocates have acknowledged, “Charter school openings have slowed dramatically with a 48% decrease in the number of charter applications since 2012.

Charter leaders are now fighting each other over the willingness of some to accept more of the accountability regimes that are mandated for traditional public schools. One of the most insightful responses to the pushback against reform was recently expressed by Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio, who admits that technocratic reformers, “… overplayed our hand, overstated our expertise, and outspent our moral authority by a considerable margin as we morphed from idealism to policymaking.”

As one reformer told me, once again, the reform movement was never a monolith. He’s right; they just played on one television. Now, their differences are out in the open. Although most see choice as their primary policy tool, some still defend the use of tests to provide a scorecard for competition between choice and traditional public schools. Whether or not individual reformers liked the accountability mandates that they helped dump on neighborhood schools, most choice supporters don’t want that micromanaging imposed on their own children.

So, what does this mean for Oklahoma City?

Must we continue to let state and national ideologues drag us into their battles? What can local educators and choice advocates learn from each other?

We supporters of traditional public schools must acknowledge the many failures of our system, but charter and voucher supporters must also admit both sides of the story. Their model only works when parents are free to choose schools that suit their kids and when schools are free to choose their students. The claim that a system could be engineered where all students would be free to choose was just public relations spin. Once choice schools lose even some of their power to “exit” kids, their supposed student-performance gains disappear.

The time might be right for a meaningful conversation. Maybe we can stop criticizing the choices made by individuals for their own children. Perhaps the money and energy devoted to defeating opponents can be directed toward kids who are being poorly educated by neighborhood schools but would never be retained by choice schools.