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Point of View: Legislation misses the mark

The rhetoric surrounding these bills is centered on narratives about failing schools, ZIP codes and helping marginalized communities. While compelling from an emotional standpoint, these pieces of legislation miss the mark on impacting communities and creating long-term change for families.

All students deserve a quality education, but the assumption this isn’t happening based on ZIP code or family situation is not necessarily true and avoids the nuances of the argument. Living up to the Oklahoma Standard compels us to ask the harder questions addressing the root causes of why such destitute ZIP codes exist in the first place and what a failing school actually looks like.

Oklahoma leads the nation in the percentage of students who have experienced childhood trauma. This is the result of being top 10 in the worst statistics (incarceration, poverty, uninsured, teenage pregnancy, etc.) and bottom 10 in the best statistics (education funding, health outcomes, etc.). The reality is we have a long history of creating policies continually and systematically marginalizing communities causing generational curses of trauma, oppression and destitution.

And while I fully believe education is a way out, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Getting a few children from one ZIP code to attend school in another doesn’t improve situations for the many families who are and will continue to struggle until we create policies that will make their lives better now. Eliminating food and child care deserts, providing better access to mental health services and livable wages are just a few things that would greatly impact under-resourced areas so families can thrive instead of simply survive.

Additionally, the ZIP code argument never makes its way past the urban areas of Oklahoma. Vouchers and open transfer policies don’t apply to rural Oklahoma where private schools don’t exist and the next district is an hour away.

So what is the argument really about? Money.

There is a lot of money to be made in education, and the push to privatize always begins with creating a false narrative about failing schools while using poor folks as pawns in a game that is not really about them.

Are there schools that need to improve? Yes.

But vouchers and open transfers don't improve schools, and they definitely don’t change students’ food insecurity, trauma or always provide students with a better education. In fact, these policies don’t tend to serve the population they are advertised to serve — our most marginalized students.

Improving education requires a multifaceted approach that extends beyond the school building.

It requires fully funding our education system so we can attract and retain teachers, provide quality infrastructure, support and programs necessary to meet the individual needs of all learners. It requires keeping resources in communities instead of policies that send resources elsewhere. But, and maybe most importantly, it requires actually living up to the Oklahoma Standard of taking care of our neighbors by passing policies that build up communities, reduce childhood trauma, address systemic problems, and make every ZIP code one worth living in.

Shari Gateley is an Oklahoma City Public Schools parent.