November 27 2012

Taking School Safety Seriously in Oklahoma

Vicki E. Alger

Keeping children safe at school is a growing concern among parents and policy makers across the country. Earlier this year the Weinstein Company released Bully, which documents the torments of children bullied repeatedly at school. Two of the students featured in the film were from Oklahoma, and one had moved to Oklahoma from Iowa.

Yesterday I traveled to Oklahoma City to speak about Safety Opportunity Scholarships at a terrific event hosted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs—one of the country’s leading state-based public policy research organizations. The dedicated experts at OCPA share IWF’s commitment to limited government, personal liberty, free markets, and countering the expansion of government—so did the lawmakers, parents, and citizens who attended the event at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (By the way, I learned that the spectacular dome completed a decade ago was paid for through private funding—making it an architectural and a political marvel.)

At the event we discussed the fact that most parents and policymakers believe their public schools are safe. They might change their minds if actual safety statistics were more transparent. (A fuller summary of my remarks is available on OCPA’s website here.)

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) students may transfer to another public school if their current one meets their state’s definition of a persistently dangerous school (PDS). But because states define unsafe schools so narrowly, less than 50 public schools out of nearly 100,000 nationwide are labeled PDS each year.

Oklahoma is no exception.

Since 2003, no Oklahoma public school has ever met the state’s PDS threshold. One reason is it’s limited to violent criminal offenses. What’s more the state’s PDS threshold stipulates a specified proportion and kind of violent criminal offenses must occur for three consecutive years before a school is considered persistently dangerous.

This three-year threshold is common to nearly all state PDS definitions. A Safety Opportunity Scholarship (SOS) Program would give children a lifeline now—not years from now.

Under an SOS Program, parents with a reasonable apprehension for their children’s safety—including instances of bullying—could transfer them immediately to safer schools of their choice within or beyond their resident school districts, including public, charter, virtual, or private schools.

Scholarships would match the state per-pupil funding at students’ current public schools. If parents opted to send their children to less expensive schools the savings would revert back to the state general fund—leaving more money for programs to help all schools become safer.

Students should not have to wait years at a time or become victims of crime before their parents are allowed to transfer them to safer schools. Empowered parents, not ineffective mandates, are a better way to keep children safe at school.

Audience members agreed and had lots of great questions and comments. My favorite, though, came from a young boy who was probably about nine years old. “Three years? A LOT can happen in three years! Why should we have to wait three whole years?”

Why indeed, young man.

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