POSTED ON JUNE 8, 2011:
Privatizing public schools isn't about improvement, it's about money
Is the legislative session fades (mercifully?) into a distant memory, the mind races with random thoughts:
Doesn't someone owe former State Board of Education member Tim Gilpin an apology?
Legislative Republicans, you may recall, excoriated Gilpin earlier this year when he dared to assert that first-year state Superintendent Janet Barresi's installation of two top education department officials -- paid initially, at least, with private funds -- was premature at best and illegal at worst.
In fact, the GOP majority was so irate Gilpin and the board refused to give Barresi carte blanche that they rammed through legislation stripping the panel of much of its authority, expanding the superintendent's powers and giving the governor more authority to reconfigure the board.
It turns out Gilpin, a Tulsa attorney, was right: Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued a formal opinion recently that Barresi's execs did not have the authority to act as state employees because they were not paid with state funds.
" ... Such a person is a usurper who lacks the authority to carry out the official duties of the State," the AG's opinion noted. "The acts of such a person are void."
It added: "Employees and officers may only be compensated by law. At present, Oklahoma law does not authorize an employee or officer to be directly compensated by a private entity or person."
Jennifer Carter, the chief of staff, and Damon Gardenhire, the communications director, were formally hired in early May. But they effectively were on the job for four previous months.
Can you spell l-a-w-s-u-i-t-?
A statement from the superintendent's office asserts that no action was taken "that could be invalidated." And indeed, it's entirely possible that nothing will come of this -- legally.
It is worth remembering, however, that Republicans for years vilified majority Democrats -- especially former Sen. Gene Stipe -- for their arrogance, complaining they recklessly wielded power without regard for the rule of law, much less its spirit.
Physician, heal thyself.
"I am not a member of any organized political party -- I am a Democrat."
Will Rogers's famous deadpan leapt to mind at the recent State Democratic Convention in Oklahoma City -- especially when officials discovered they counted 95 more votes in the chairman's race than they had eligible voters.
The matter eventually was sorted out and the party elected former state Rep. Wallace Collins of Norman as its new leader. But the parliamentary hiccup underscores a political reality: Democrats must be better organized if they are going to compete successfully in the reddest of red states.
It's doubtful Democrats will have anywhere near the GOP's bankroll anytime soon. After all, campaign money follows power -- and Republicans have it all: both houses of the Legislature and all the statewide offices.
But Democrats need look no further than a recent City Council race in Oklahoma City for inspiration.
Ed Shadid was the most unlikely of winners: a progressive who refused special interest money and a Green Party adherent who ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic House candidate in 2010. Moreover, his opponent received considerable financial backing from the city's corporate powers-that-be.
It's true that, as a doctor, Shadid had the ability to self-finance his campaign (though he didn't spend nearly as much as his opponent). But what really made the difference was that his supporters were organized -- and especially adept at social media.
The challenge for Collins is to unite disparate -- and dispirited -- Democratic factions, focusing particularly on key legislative races where they have the best opportunities for victory.
Perception is reality in politics. If Democrats pick up any seats next year, and can reduce the GOP's more than 2-1 advantage in either house, the complexion of state politics would be altered significantly.
You can put earrings on a pig, but it's still a pig: State lawmakers can talk all they want about the glories of school choice and competition, but such high-toned rhetoric cannot conceal the fact that privatizing public education is about money.
Of course there are examples of excellent charter schools, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Most perform no better than traditional public schools and some perform worse.
Outsourcing public ed is gaining steam not because it actually will improve our educational system, but because some folks have figured out they can make a buck on it.
Case in point: White House Management, an Ohio-based company that has collected $230 million in public funds to run charter schools there. It has grown into a national chain with about 20,000 students.
Now, though, 10 of its own schools and the state of Ohio are suing, complaining that White Hat students are failing and the company is refusing to account for its spending of the taxpayers' money.
The idea behind charter schools is that they should be small and locally run, often requiring commitment of time and resources from parents whose students are admitted. But now, about a third of charter schools nationally rely on private management companies -- some for-profit, others non-profit -- to perform many fundamental school services, including hiring and firing, developing curricula and disciplining students.
The GOP-dominated Legislature slipped its trunk under the tent this session with "opportunity scholarships" -- tax credits for those individuals and corporations that donate to foundations that give scholarships to private schools.
The Ohio case should give pause to those who are hell-bent on overhauling a system that has given us far more bang for our buck than we deserve.
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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