February 7, 2017
Kids in Seminole are about to get smarter.
Why? The State Board of Education recently approved the creation of a new charter school in that community. By next fall, high school juniors and seniors will be attending the school in facilities to be shared with Seminole Junior College. In a few more years, Seminole’s new charter school will offer grades K-12, and greater learning opportunities for all who want them.
The school, and others sure to follow, was made possible by a 2015 action of the Legislature that allowed communities outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa the freedom to establish charter schools. Along the way its supporters had to overcome some common myths about charter schools.
Charter schools are in fact public schools, not “elite private schools” as some opponents try to characterize them. They can be sponsored by a local school district, by a higher education institution, by an Indian tribe, or as in the case in Seminole by the State Board of Education. But control over how the school is to be designed is largely left to the organizers and the parents who enroll their kids there.
That cuts the often unimaginative public school bureaucrats who all too commonly subscribe to a “one size fits all” mentality out of the equation. And that is good for the kids.
Charter schools don’t “cherry pick” students, as some critics claim. In fact, an article in Forbes magazine last year noted that nationally, 53 percent of charter school students were listed as living in poverty, compared with 48 percent of public school students overall. Charter school kids were also more likely to be minorities.
The Seminole example was especially instructive since the local public school district had been divided by squabbles among board members. Patrons had rejected two bond issues, and the aging high school had been declared unusable; Seminole High School classes are being held in a former grocery store!
So it is no wonder parents swarmed the State Board of Education to support the new charter school. Extra support came from a local businessman who was concerned that potential future employees of his firm might be reluctant to move to Seminole because of the school turmoil.
Charter schools were and remain a vital part of the school choice revolution. The Oklahoma Charter School Association says there are at least 17,000 students enrolled in 29 charter schools statewide, with 2,500 more children on waiting lists. Admission is open to all as long as space is available.
Nationally, the charter school movement has enlisted more parents and students each year, for good reason. A study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found that in Boston, charter school students improved their math scores and comprehension at six times the rate of their peers in local public schools. They also outperformed those public school kids by four times in reading.
Some Oklahoma charter schools have met with stunning success. Harding Charter Preparatory High School in Oklahoma City serves a student body where a majority are minorities and more than half are poor enough to be on federal school lunch assistance. Yet Harding’s graduates shine.
The Harding Class of 2016 saw 78 percent of its members score three or better on at least one advanced placement exam. The class recorded an average ACT score of 24.2, among the best in the state. Harding is ranked as the number one high school in Oklahoma and is the only state school to be listed among the 150 best high schools in America.
Thankfully, residents in all 77 Oklahoma counties can now consider establishing charter schools. That’s real progress.
Jonathan Small is president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.