A bill to create a school voucher program in Oklahoma failed earlier this year to win passage to the state legislature. Oklahoma is a state where 68% of respondents promote school choiceand yet this little school choice bill, which was sponsored by the acting president of the state senate and supported by the governor, was defeated.
In 2020, I was the executive director of a charter school in Oklahoma licensed by the local public school district. The district withheld 5% of our public funding each year as an authorization fee. When the state passed a law capping the charter permitting fees at 3% of public funding, the authorizer increased our rent by an amount equal to the fee reduction.
Both events highlight the critical flaw of the current movement to reform K-12 education: it underestimates the system’s hostility to innovation. Even in a school-choice-friendly state like Oklahoma, even the narrowest reforms only occasionally survive the challenge of the traditional system. When they survive, the system easily counters them. Our public education system is a bureaucratic monopoly controlled by special interest groups and, for all intents and purposes, immune to change.
The American compulsory education system does not work for anyone. He is Dearsuccess shifts internationally, teachers are leaving the profession, and parents feel powerless. Despite 60 years of rising costs and disappointing results, almost nothing has been done to fix the system. Adults argue and point fingers while children and society pay the price for inaction. Progress in education has stagnated.
During this time, we have made progress in virtually every other human endeavour. We live longer and live better. we are more prosperous through innovation, born of entrepreneurs taking risks and bringing new and better ideas to market.
The enemies of innovation, however, are the engines of our public education system: government bureaucracy, monopoly, and vested interests. Government bureaucracies do not fear failure; they are resource hungry and therefore serve even higher levels of the bureaucracy to get them. Monopolies do not fear competition; they fear failure and thus avoid taking the risks necessary to cash. Special interests fear competition and seek influence; they subvert market incentives by amassing Power.
In the area of educational reform, those who support the traditional system demand more resources, while reformers advocate various forms of choice. Reformers, however, rarely describe the prerequisite political changes that must be made to make lasting reform possible. The solution to the ills of our education system may in fact involve more resources over time and certainly includes more choice, but it must be preceded by policy reforms that make the system conducive to sustainable innovation.
The political processes that control the education system exist outside the established norms of our electoral system. School elections are usually held at times other than general elections. For example, my home state elects school board members in February. These off-cycle elections have low turnout and therefore give disproportionate influence to special interests, most specifically the teachers’ unions. These off-cycle elections frequently produce school boards with views on education that are different from those of the community that the board represented.
School board elections also typically omit partisan labels from the ballot. The average voter does not have time to research the positions of individual school board candidates and so, even in on-cycle elections, will leave this choice blank. Again, this gives special interests more influence. Partisan labels inform voters about the likely candidate posts.
Finally, about 25% of states choose the top education official in independent elections. governor. Running for office requires candidates to curry favor with special interests. Being elected also makes the state’s chief education officer a natural competitor to the governor and therefore subject to unproductive conflict.
Until these political processes change, we cannot expect the education system to change either. Even minor reforms will not survive the legislative process or will be easily thwarted once implemented. Real progress can only happen after breaking the grip of the enemies of innovation on the education system.
Don Parker was a charter school board member for 15 years, serving two terms as board chair and two years as district executive director. He also served three consecutive administrations of the Oklahoma Department of Education in a variety of advisory roles.