OKLAHOMA CITY —
I saw a special preview of the movie “Won’t Back Down” last week. It’s a powerful movie with a powerful message. Based on true events, the movie details the fight of one parent, mired in poverty, who wants a better learning environment for her academically struggling daughter. She finds an ally in a teacher, who is also the parent of a struggling student. The two fight through incredible adversity at many levels to open a school. It was inspiring.
Because of the very real plight of parents and children in situations similar to those portrayed in the movie, I pledged my support last week to state Sen. David Holt who promised to file “Parent Trigger Legislation” for the 2013 legislative session. A parent trigger means that if 51 percent of parents whose children attend a chronically low-performing school sign a petition, they can demand that the district transform the school. Those changes could include new leadership or staff at the school, or a transition into a charter school, which would provide the flexibility the school needs to improve.
In many ways, the movie reminded me of my struggle to open Independence Charter Middle School and later Harding Charter Preparatory High School. As the parent of two boys who were struggling to learn in a less than optimal learning environment, I found myself asking why I and other parents couldn’t change things at our local school.
There’s a scene in the movie where the main character is hauling petitions to force transformation at her child’s school. Sixteen years ago, I was that parent. I had to fight many battles to help enact Oklahoma’s Charter School law before I could open these public charter schools.
Many traditional public schools are doing a phenomenal job of educating children. The teachers and administrators in these schools work their hardest every day to make sure that each child who comes to them has an optimal learning environment to reach their highest level of achievement. But in those situations where a chronically low-performing school is not meeting the need of the students, parents and community members deserve to have another choice for a free, public education.
As educators we shouldn’t be afraid of such choices. Choice is what makes our country great. Competition spurs us all on to do our very best work. As educators, we have the ability to change children’s lives, but ultimately the decision on where and how a child is educated should rest with the parent.
The reason I sought the job of state superintendent was because I wholeheartedly believe that every child in the state of Oklahoma deserves the best education possible no matter where they live. A ZIP code should not determine the quality of education a child receives. Children who live in poverty should have the same opportunities as those who live in wealthy neighborhoods. Having access to the best education possible is the only way out of poverty. When parents have a choice, this can happen.
JANET BARRESI is state superintendent of public instruction. She may be contacted via her website at www.ok.gov/sde/.