Expanding Charter Schools: A Solution For Oklahoma City Public Schools?

May 16, 2016

UPDATE: Board members decided there was not enough information yet to make a decision, and postponed a vote to a later board meeting.

The Oklahoma City Public School Board is set to take action on a divisive issue: whether or not to expand charter schools in the district.

At past board meetings, many parents and community members rallied against the expansion, saying more charters will create a wider gap between the haves and have-nots. But Board members say an expansion will give more students a chance to succeed.

One veteran teacher, Dr. John Thompson, is worried that the expansion is too experimental.

“KIPP has zero experience teaching an entire neighborhood”

KIPP Reach College Prep is one of the charter schools that want to expand. And Thompson’s right, they’ve never run a neighborhood school, but that’s what they’re proposing to do.

They’re currently an opt-in school, meaning parents choose to send their children there. It’s free, just like a public school, and they serve about 300 fifth through eighth grade students. But they’re asking the district to essentially give them Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, and in return they’ll accept, and educate all the kids that live in that neighborhood reaching an additional 900 elementary-age students.

The idea is—through this expansion – more kids will get the opportunity to go through KIPP’s result-producing program. They have an A+ on the state report card, while many OKC schools have Fs.

But despite the positive results, Thompson, and others, are opposed.  

“They do a great job with their model, but they have failed in terms of expanding their model,” Thompson said. “And that’s what we’re discussing right now. Do we want them to experiment on Oklahoma City, expanding their model?”

KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a national chain of charters across 21 states. They’ve got a reputation for getting good results in low-income, underserved areas, where many school districts don’t. However, some of their schools have closed down after they tried to expand too quickly.

And their academic model is rigorous. They have eight to nine hour school days, and the kids have a lot of homework. KIPP also has fairly rigid disciplinary policies.

Thompson worries that OKC kids have baggage—a kind of baggage that KIPP doesn’t normally deal with.  

“KIPP has lower poverty rates, lower special education rates,” he said.

Because they’re an opt-in school, Thompson says KIPP gets better kids. He says it’s a self-selecting system because KIPP doesn’t provide transportation, so only kids with more involved parents go there.

“They serve high-challenge kids, but they don’t have near as many as they’d serve if they expanded.”

One percent of KIPP’s students are homeless according to 2014-2015 data. While 17 percent of the kids in Martin Luther King Elementary Jr. are homeless. KIPP’s student population is about 6 percent special education—while MLK’s is 15 percent.

KIPP also wants to expand in to Douglass High School in the district and this concerns Thompson, too. He says that when school choice is expanded beyond a certain point there are unintended consequences. He says the easiest-to-educate kids are sorted out to the charter schools, leaving behind intense concentrations of children with problems in the public schools.

“And that just makes it so much harder to have a high quality school," he said.

Thompson, and parents in the community, worry their kids won’t cut it in KIPP, and will be forced to find a different school.

But the principal at KIPP, Tracy McDaniel, says this isn’t true.

“People say, well you can kick kids out. We used to do that. We used to. But now… we’ll have a contract with the district that says, you authorize my charter, and we will keep these kids all year.”

McDaniel said that rigid discipline is a thing of the past. He also said they’re already teaching the neighborhood kids, and doing great work with them.

“Three-fourths of my kids are below grade level when they get here.  At least two years below. It’s the program that they go through and the support that we give them that turns them around.”

He says KIPP spends a lot of money on professional development and that’s why they’re successful.

"So when you say I have the best kids, then you don’t give the teachers credit," he said.

McDaniel posed one final question to the community: Do you wait years for the district to improve, or do you want a solution now? Because McDaniel says he’s got one.