In health care, we currently have choice for those who can afford it and government subsidies for those who cannot to help them go to public or private hospitals. What we lack is a sufficient level of universality " the working class gets left out. Meanwhile, in education, we have universality for public schools, but we lack the choice that responds to a variety of needs and helps spur quality.
The upper classes can opt out of the public system if they so choose and seek private or parochial education wherever they live. The middle class is presented with either parochial schools or they neighborhood shop with one eye ever on the school district boundaries. The working and lower classes usually are either priced out of good school districts or private and parochial systems.
Policy-makers often think the school-choice movement is an invention of the postwar world, but they could not be more mistaken. Great Britain and other countries give people, through various subsidies, real choice in education " public, private and parochial. Is this merely because they lack an institutional separation of church and state? No, another great example of vibrant school choice may be found in American tertiary education. The fact that I was able to use federal funds (through subsidized loans and military benefits) to attend Notre Dame is uncontroversial. Not coincidentally, our tertiary system (colleges and universities) are the envy of the world, in stark contrast to our primary and even more so, secondary systems. Choice and flexibility are the proximate causes.
The mistake by school-choice proponents has been to allow opponents to tag them with the accusation that they merely allow the privileged few to opt out. Aside from the fact that the current system is far guiltier of this sin (by limiting choice to those with the wealth to pay for private schools or leafy suburban neighborhoods), school-choice proponents must advocate a more comprehensive solution. Such is especially true in Oklahoma.
Comprehensive education reform must include expansion of charter and magnet schools. My neighborhood includes HardingCharterPreparatory School, an excellent charter school, and is near to the great magnet, Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics. Other Oklahomans are not so lucky. We need to build a system where every gifted child " whether academically, technically or artistically " is nurtured and challenged. Likewise, when over-bureaucratization stultifies a given school, the option to reopen "under new management" must be available so that, to coin a phrase, no child is left behind. Obviously, unfunded federal mandates are not quite as promising.
The paragraphs above betray my urban perspective, but I want to remember the needs of our rural fellow Oklahomans. As part of a grand bargain for comprehensive education reform, our policy-makers ought to rethink the push for school consolidation. I must admit, I am confused by soi-disant conservatives who wish to demolish old institutions and patriotic associations solely in the name of savings. It is far better to conserve the ancestral school, the beloved mascots and the independence of local school boards. For cost savings, allow the local authorities to contract with neighbors to share administrative costs voluntarily; do not mandate a one-size-fits-all solution.
Only by creating solutions that promote the welfare of all Oklahomans can we build the culture of learning so necessary to compete in the new global age.
Reese is an attorney who lives with his wife and son in Oklahoma City.