Cause for con­cern in district re­sponse

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION -

FOR months, it has been pro­claimed that ed­u­ca­tion is a top is­sue for Ok­la­homans. But you can’t al­ways tell it based on cit­i­zen par­tic­i­pa­tion in school is­sues. Ok­la­homa City pro­vides the lat­est ex­am­ple. The district is im­ple­ment­ing its “Path­way to Great­ness” project. Among other things, the im­por­tant project could lead to clo­sure of un­der­used build­ings and then to in­creased ser­vices and pro­grams as op­er­a­tional sav­ings are redi­rected. (The district op­er­ates as if it has 60,000 stu­dents when it has 38,000, ex­clud­ing char­ter school stu­dents.)

As part of the process, the district has so­licited in­put via an on­line sur­vey and through a se­ries of com­mu­nity meet­ings. Ac­cord­ing to a news re­lease from the district, the on­line sur­vey gen­er­ated re­sponses from roughly 3,000 in­di­vid­u­als, and the com­mu­nity meet­ings drew around 800.

That’s a to­tal of up to 3,800 peo­ple, which isn’t bad as these things go, although the ac­tual num­ber may be lower if peo­ple who sub­mit­ted sur­vey re­sponses also at­tended com­mu­nity meet­ings.

Even so, it’s worth not­ing that Ok­la­homa City Pub­lic Schools re­ports it em­ploys 4,600 ad­min­is­tra­tors, teach­ers and sup­port per­son­nel. The fam­i­lies of roughly 46,000 stu­dents also are im­pacted. And, given how lo­cal com­mu­nity lead­ers tout the im­por­tance of a good school sys­tem to the city’s long-term eco­nomic growth, the en­tire pop­u­la­tion within the Ok­la­homa City lim­its, around 643,000 ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus es­ti­mates, should also be con­cerned.

Yet the num­ber of peo­ple who have pro­vided feed­back to the school district, so far, isn’t even equal to the num­ber of peo­ple em­ployed by the district. To date, the district re­ports 26.89 per­cent of sur­vey re­sponses came from staff mem­bers, which equals around 1,020 in­di­vid­u­als. That means the vast ma­jor­ity of school district em­ploy­ees has yet to of­fer sur­vey in­put.

The district re­ports 61.48 per­cent of sur­vey re­sponses came from OKCPS par­ents or care­givers, which trans­lates to fewer than 1,850. Even if ev­ery fam­ily/care­giver ac­counts for three stu­dents apiece, that means the district has heard from only 1-in-8 par­ents through the sur­vey, if not fewer.

As for mem­bers of the broader com­mu­nity, they ac­count for fewer than 300 re­sponses, based on fig­ures pro­vided by the district.

If ed­u­ca­tion is re­ally a top con­cern for lo­cal civic lead­ers, par­ents and ad­vo­cates, why aren’t more peo­ple in­volved? Sev­eral ex­pla­na­tions seem pos­si­ble, in­clud­ing a per­cep­tion that ini­tia­tives such as “Path­way to Great­ness” are empty ges­tures and noth­ing will change.

The lack of par­tic­i­pa­tion also is in keep­ing with trends statewide. The num­ber of peo­ple who vote in school board and school bond elec­tions is nor­mally a frac­tion of those who par­tic­i­pate in other elec­tions. The most ex­treme ex­am­ple is a 2013 bond elec­tion in the Crutcho district in Ok­la­homa County that drew just five vot­ers with two of them school board mem­bers. There are lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lems that con­trib­ute to low voter par­tic­i­pa­tion, and we’ve sup­ported mov­ing school elec­tions to high-turnout dates when other races are on the bal­lot.

Even so, there’s a gap be­tween the share of peo­ple who say ed­u­ca­tion is a pri­or­ity and the share in­volv­ing them­selves in ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy. De­mand­ing “more ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing” is easy. But en­sur­ing schools are well run is the real chal­lenge.

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