Equity in education, Pathways to Greatness and charter school funding were each addressed by candidates during Monday night’s voter forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma County ahead of the April 6 runoff for chairperson of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education.
Current District 1 Representative Charles Henry finished first during the Feb. 9 primary election with about 48.1 percent of the primary vote, pulling incumbent Chairperson Paula Lewis (43.8 percent) into a runoff.
During Monday’s forum (video embedded below), both candidates had the opportunity to highlight their points of focus if elected. Henry’s campaign platform includes a structured discipline policy, closing the achievement gap, quality remediation, a safer return to school plan and a commitment to students with special needs.
“I couldn’t sit back for four more years and watch as there is no focus on academic outcomes of students. The focus and attention is being brought to different matters,” Henry said. “I am going to propose a structured discipline policy, which will modify the students’ code of conduct policy, which will allow teachers to do their jobs, which is to actually teach in the classroom.”
Henry also proposed alternative environments, such as quality in-school suspension and detention programs in an academic setting, to help identify potential behavioral, emotional and mental health needs as well as learning disabilities. He also suggested more robust academic remediation plans.
Lewis’ areas of focus include increasing the quality of education, increasing pay and benefits for educators, bringing stability to the administration, removing barriers and promoting equity in the OKCPS district.
“In 2017, when I became the board chair, we had had 22 superintendents in 20 years. We were facing a $30 million budget shortfall, and we had an upheld Office of Civil Rights complaint regarding disproportionate allowing of suspending brown and Black males as compared to white males,” Lewis said. “Let me tell you how we addressed these issues (…) we immediately put into place a code of conduct and a discipline strategy to try to decrease the proportionality of suspensions, and we did that. As far as Pathways to Greatness, we fixed the $30 million budget shortfall by reinventing our schools and taking money from buildings and putting it into resources.”
During the forum, candidates were asked whether they support the State Board of Education’s vote during a meeting last week to equalize funding between public and charter schools in Oklahoma, settling a 2017 lawsuit with the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association.
Henry, who has two children who have attended charter schools, said he has moral concerns about the funding equalization resolution.
“Morally, I feel with the disparity with our traditional public schools, it’s hard to take funding away from that,” Henry said.
He also said the racial inequities of how charter schools are being supported concern him.
“One of the things I saw in one charter situation which causes me to have the opinion that I have is that they created in the Wheeler District a charter school, and the boarder line cut right off at the Will Rogers public housing unit,” Henry said. “They said it was a coincidence, but I’m the only board member that spoke up on that, and they did make some accommodations, but current leadership did not speak up about that issue.”
Lewis questioned the state board’s process for making its controversial decision.
“I 100 percent understand why charter schools want access to ad valorem taxes because they want to do what’s best for their kids, too,” Lewis said. “I’m concerned that the board came out and voted on that against the advice of their legal advice and their superintendent saying they didn’t believe it was constitutional.”
Lewis said since OKCPS and Tulsa Public Schools also have standing in the lawsuit filed by OPCSA and that they should have been involved in the resolution process.
“I don’t know how you can have a settlement without us being at the table,” Lewis said. “I have a great hope that they rethink that, and we can go back in and look at this as the people who have interest in this particular legal situation. If not, then we’ll have to go from there and see what our legal advice says.”
Pathways to Greatness
Candidates were also asked questions regarding the district’s Pathways to Greatness plan, which consolidated schools, changed feeder patterns and provided support services for students across the district in 2019. Despite voting in favor, Henry has been critical of the plan in the past, including concerns about bus services at the beginning of the plan’s implementation.
“I was the only proponent that spoke publicly about this and privately about the bus service before the Pathways to Greatness was passed. It just takes common sense to see that when you have these consolidations and schools closing, what is going to happen with the bus system?” Henry said. “We had all these issues, and when the Pathways to Greatness was passed, we heard stories about parents leaving their elementary and middle school children at a bus stop thinking their children are at school, and they’re still at the bus stop for an hour or an hour and a half. The main thing we have to do in regards to anything we have to do with the future of OKCPS is we have to increase the pay of bus drivers. If we increase the pay for bus drivers, we increase the number of routes, then children can take advantages of different types of studies that happen at different schools.”
Lewis acknowledged the problems the Pathways to Greatness plan caused for bus routes at the beginning of its implementation, but she said the district has corrected those problems.
“We did have some bus issues with the implementation of Pathways to Greatness. Even if it was one kid who had an issue with that, it would have been one too many. There’s no excuse for the kids that did have an issue with that,” Lewis said. “We have righted that wrong.”
Lewis said after the implementation of Pathways to Greatness, the district created bussing zones for student transportation to application schools.
“Safety is No. 1, and I always want kids to feel safe, seen and valued,” Lewis said. “You can constantly look back at what we’ve done on that, and that is where we focus our energy.”
Henry was also critical of the lack of a dashboard for the public to utilize to track the district’s Pathways to Greatness progress, something he said he and District 5 board member Ruth Veales have sought.
“Having a dashboard gives the board and administration a focus and lets the public know exactly what we need to know. We know the successes, we can cheer that. If we don’t know what the lack of progress is, how can we move forward and be successful?” Henry said. “This is something that we’ve talked about. I’m sure this is something that board member Veals has talked to Ms. Lewis about. She has not supported it, she had not come out publicly saying we need a dashboard. We’ve been asking about it for months and months, I think it’s been going over a year or two, and she has not supported us.”
Lewis said there have been requests and multiple conversations about creating a dashboard and that it is something she supports.
“I don’t know why we haven’t been able to get a dashboard up, but I support that,” Lewis said. “As far as transparency, you can go on our website and you can see three years of budgets and audits. If we say we’re putting money where (…) equity says it should be, you can track that on our website.”
Equity in education
Regarding equity, Henry said the board should take nationally certified diversity and implicit bias training and that the district needs to live up to the equity plan the board has in place.
“Division of equity with the equity policy we passed said particular attention should be paid to students who are socio-economically disadvantaged, African American, Hispanic, Native American, English learners and students with disabilities,” Henry said. “Our vision for equity that the board passed that I agreed to was to take care of this issue. However, under the current leadership, the focus has been primarily on mental health and Embrace Oklahoma, which is a great organization, but it hasn’t been on what the purpose of it was. One of the primary focuses for equity was on racial equity because of the racial disparities that are in our schools.”
Lewis said the district’s equity policy is one of the most robust in the state and is made stronger with resolutions that continue to be passed by the board.
“It really comes down to holding [Superintendent Sean] McDaniel accountable to saying that this is what we expect to happen for our kids, this is how we protect our kids, this is how we affirm our kids and say that our strength is our diversity,” Lewis said. “An example of that would be the unfortunate incident that happened at Newcastle recently where adults failed kids. I was strong on that and our board came back immediately and tightened up our safety policy to give Dr. McDaniel a stronger point of view that we want kids to be safe and hate crimes are not OK.”
When asked about what steps the board needs to take better meet the needs of students with disabilities, Lewis pointed to tightening up current equity policies, which includes special attention for students with special needs and holding McDaniel accountable to those policies.
“I think what the board can do on anything that you ask is bring light on the situation. We can bring the conversation up, we can do a work session on it, we can have a presentation from that department,” Lewis said. “It is what I work in. I work with kids with special needs all day long, so my heart is there. If there is a problem I can guarantee we’re on top of that problem.”
Henry said the district needs to work to have a better understanding of all the disabilities students face.
“We need to recommit to make sure we understand what disabilities are because you have a broad range of disabilities,” Henry said. “My opponent has been talking about mental health, but you have behavioral health, learning difficulties, emotional well-being, and some of these issues are intertwined, so we need to primarily focus on that.”
Henry also said more needs to be done to meet the needs of the district’s large demographic of bilingual students.
“I want to make sure our bilingual students get the support and programs they need. Approximately 13,000 to 14,000 of our students are bilingual students,” Henry said. “Our school district gets an increase in funding for each bilingual student. However, that money, that increase is not being used and earmarked for the purposes of bilingual programs and studies.”
Visions for education in the community
Lewis said her vision for education in the Oklahoma City Public Schools community includes ensuring every student walks away from the district with a quality education.
“My vision for education in the community is that our kids have access to an amazing education. That they have access to the fun parts of school and the hard parts of school and that we increase the rigor across the board so that our strategic plan does end up with what a successful graduate looks like and that when our kids graduate from us that they have options,” Lewis said. “They can make the choices they want based on the skill sets that they came out of school with, not based on, ‘This is all I can do.’ I don’t want, ‘All I can do,’ I want, ‘Look at all the things I can do.'”
Henry’s vision for education in the community includes increasing academic achievement and ensuring all communities are heard.
“My vision is that every single child can at least graduate at grade level or advanced, that is a primary goal,” Henry said. “My vision is that all the communities are heard. My vision is that we start making progress in the academic performance of our children. My vision is that I hope we also achieve true equity in our board policy, which is not just to have focus on mental health, but a primary focus on families with socio-economic (factors considered) and also different types of racial identities and students with disabilities and English learners.”
The League of Women Voters of Oklahoma County’s OKCPS board chairperson forum begins around the three-minute mark of the Facebook video embedded below.