By Patrick B. McGuigan | CapitolBeatOK

OKLAHOMA CITY — A leading school choice advocate is encouraging state lawmakers to look at model legislation creating Safety Opportunity Scholarships(SOS) for students in elementary and secondary schools.

Oklahoma’s largest labor union is opposed to the idea.

In a policy briefing at the State Capitol this week, Vicki Alger of the Independent Women’s Forum said her proposal would put policy heft behind language in federal legislation that theoretically allows parents to take children out of the most unsafe public schools.

Alger’s intent is to give meaning to an obscure few lines in federal legislation allowing parents to exercise choice to get their children out of “persistently dangerous schools.”

Alger said the provision for an “Unsafe School Choice Option” allows students to transfer to another public school “if their current public school meets the state definition of persistently dangerous.”

However, “Because states define unsafe schools so narrowly, less than 50 public schools out of nearly 100,000 nationwide are labeled persistently dangerous each year,” she said.

Not a single Oklahoma school meets the current definitions for danger.

Despite the absence of schools explicitly designated dangerous, administrators and reform advocates have in recent years scrutinized bullying and other abuse in schools.

Alger’s formal analysis concludes with proposed model legislation to improve reporting of school safety data, and to shift decision-making on education from government systems to parents.

Her reviewed school safety literature and public policy for the years 2003-2008, with some additional recent citations. She said that existing policy may give many “parents a false sense of security about their children’s schools.” Federal school safety data “are based largely on surveys and tallies of disciplinary actions, not actual safety incidents,” she said.

Alger said she strives “not to sensationalize” the data, adding that statistical analysis proves “schools, overall, are safe.” Fatal incidents in schools have declined since 1992, mirroring the downward trend for juvenile violence found in crime reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Still, Alger said “data is of little comfort if you are stuck in one of the worst schools.”

As for those worst schools, about 6.6 percent of all schools (5,400 sites), in the most recent U.S. Department of Education study, account for half of all safety incidents, some 1.6 percent of all schools (1,600 sites) account for half of all the violent incidents reported.

Alger said existing data is limited because accountability is diffuse and reports are prepared by the same school systems responsible for child safety.

Even with noted deficiencies, some 80 percent of public schools report some violent criminal incidents, while 20 percent report serious violent criminal incidents.

Of interest, the separation in reported incidents between urban and suburban schools is less than 10 percent.

“Regardless of how fast their skin tans, all children can learn,” she said. “There are actually a lot or problems, and little difference in some ways between suburban and urban schools in terms of violence.”

Alger said the model law is intended to allow parents to exercise an “immediate” option to put their child in a different school when there is “reasonable suspicion” about safety. The model law would allow more safe school options, rather than remaining limited to schools sponsored by the government.

Alger told CapitolBeatOK that for children without parents, guardians would be empowered to exercise choice. As for wards of the state, agency officials would be empowered.

Alger’s advocates for broader access to parental and student choice in education. She said “education money should follow the child.”

“Already 6 million kids are in choice programs approved through the U.S. Department of Education,” she said.

In those programs, including those allowing students to access private education programs, “the focus is on districts and systems making decisions, and not on kids … Lawyers get involved and there are fights over jurisdiction and the schools are deciding who gets to access alternatives and choices,” she said.

“I would like parents to be in the driver’s seat. Tax credits and scholarship programs are good because they put the parents in charge. My main message after all these years is don’t get discouraged. It’s the right thing to do.”

She praised Oklahoma’s enactment in recent years of both a special-needs scholarship program and a tax-credit scholarship program with broader reach. In a state Supreme Court decision last week, the special-needs program was sustained against a major legal challenge from public school district lawyers.

Alger said the structure of school options in Arizona already permits choice along the lines of SOS. While many inner city school reformers in California want safety scholarships and other choice options enacted, Alger said prospects there are limited.

Alger’s proposal is new to policy debate in Oklahoma.

 Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association told CapitolBeatOK in an email that “Our public schools should be safe for all students. Our resources should go to help all children, not just a select few.”

The union has opposed previous parental choice efforts.

Endorsement of the concept in Alger’s model legislation came from a spokesman for Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.

“Every child in the state must be educated in a safe environment,” Tricia Pemberton, communications specialist with the state Department of Education, told CapitolBeatOK. “While we urge schools to focus on creating and maintaining a safe environment through appropriate and effective policy and enforcement, Superintendent Barresi believes that each parent should have the right to make appropriate choices for their child’s education.”

Brandon Dutcher, vice president at the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs, which arranged for Alger’s visit, said, “It’s no secret that Oklahoma’s schools don’t always provide the safe learning environment that children deserve. … Children in an unsafe environment deserve a ticket out — immediately. Here’s hoping our state’s political leaders will heed Dr. Alger’s advice and enact a Safety Opportunity Scholarship program.”

Alger’s 47-page policy paper, prepared with research assistance from Evelyn B. Stacey, is available online at IWF’s website. Her research was financed in part by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indiana organization. The study includes 113 references to federal and state government reports, and to private sector studies of the school safety issue.

Contact Patrick B. McGuigan at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.