Public money, public rules

by Tom Deighan

This is the eighth in a series of ten summertime articles mapping the common ground upon which parents, educators, and communities can unite regarding one of the most divisive topics in America: public education.

Many Oklahoma leaders appear to be taking progressive steps toward implementation of a voucher system, citing the need for increased competition between public and private schools. Many wonder just how that would look, and I think we could learn something from our student athletes, for most public high schools already compete against private schools on the field, on the court, and on the stage. They follow the same rules, supported by common-sense parents and educators. This supports my belief that 80% of parents and 80% of educators agree on 80% of educational issues, and I believe that this even applies to the controversial topic of school choice. My position on this issue has always been captured in a simple phrase: Public Money, Public Rules. To prove, however, that my position is not shaped by current politics, here is an excerpt from my article in an April 2015 edition of the Lawton Constitution:

It will undoubtedly surprise some people, but as a superintendent of a public school district in Oklahoma, I do not oppose vouchers – as long as anyone receiving public funds has to follow the same rules a public school follows. They should provide transportation, therapists, special education, lunches, and fully certified teachers. They should take the same tests and meet the same accountability measures in place for public schools. They should have the same oversight and financial reporting requirements. 

This sort of logic seems to apply in virtually every other area that shifts public funds to private entities. Public and private universities follow the same rules. Private and public hospitals follow the same rules. Quasi-public systems like turnpikes even follow the same rules of the road. Heck, even private prisons must follow the same rules as public prisons, so if the rule applies to criminals, we might consider it for kids.  Public Money, Public Rules works everywhere else, so it should work for public school funds. Taxpayers like to know how and where their money is spent.

Public Money, Public Rules first implies transparency, which was the concern with a high-profile Oklahoma charter school last year. The public expects to know where its money goes, and that district’s private vendor left many unanswered questions. Public Money, Public Rules also relates to accountability, which is a question mark for private schools in Oklahoma that currently receive public funds. Many private schools in Oklahoma receive checks directly from your local schools, through programs such as the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship and some federal programs, but I do not know which (if any) of the public rules follow that public money.  

Must these schools or the proposed voucher schools report graduation rates or utilize the state-mandated evaluation systems, testing systems, or climb the other mountains of mandates expected of your neighborhood school?  Must they block off 90-minutes for uninterrupted reading?  Are their schools rated with A’s or F’s?  Can they expel students? (Public schools cannot.)  Can they deny students entry?  (Public schools cannot.)  Are they required to transport special education students or serve their needs, no matter how astronomically expensive, just like public schools?   As Oklahoma continues to take steady, progressive steps toward vouchers, the Public Money, Public Rules issue should be front-and-center. Any school receiving local, state, or federal tax dollars should follow all the same rules, be it private, public, or charter. 

We do not accept separate rules in soccer. Private schools and public schools must follow the exact same rules on a level field. Likewise, any discussion of a voucher system must begin and end with Public Money, Public Rules – not just most rules but all rules – full adherence to every onerous, ridiculous rule that has been imposed on kids, parents, and educators in public schools. This principle works for soccer and tennis as well as prisons and hospitals. Public Money, Public Rules just seems like another issue upon which most parents and most educators could agree.

Tom Deighan is the current Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com.



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