Rural superintendent speaks out against private school vouchers
BY KIM ARCHER World Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2011
12/17/11 at 6:59 AM
MOUNDS - As superintendent of a small rural school district in Creek County, Donna Campo may find herself driving a school bus one morning or filling in as a substitute teacher another morning.
Busy as she is tending to matters those in bigger districts don't confront, the Liberty Public Schools administrator has managed to become a central figure in the fight against vouchers.
Notably, Campo has taken a stand with superintendents of much larger Tulsa-area school districts against a law that pays part of private school tuition for special-needs students - even though not one of her own district's 600 students has applied for the voucher.
"Every parent, every student in the state of Oklahoma has a dog in the fight," she said. "And that is, you cannot take revenue from already under-resourced schools and expect them to be able to perform and succeed."
Since the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act was signed into law last year, several Tulsa-area school district superintendents have spoken out consistently against the legislation.
Jenks and Union school districts are challenging the constitutionality of the law in state court. Liberty doesn't have "standing" to participate in the lawsuit, Campo said. But she and school administrators across the state support the lawsuit.
"I think eventually the (Oklahoma) Supreme Court will have to rule on this and I think they will rule in favor of education for all," Campo said. "That is guaranteed by the constitution - a free and appropriate public education."
Campo grew up in Okemah, the child of two family practice physicians.
"I could have been, and I was going to be, a medical doctor," she said. "But I have the gift of teaching."
As a standout basketball player, she earned a scholarship to Oklahoma Baptist University, where she played a year before transferring to the University of Central Oklahoma. She played at then-Central State on scholarship for three years.
Right out of college, she made more money working in a doctor's office than teaching, so that's what she did while starting her family. It didn't take long for Campo to return to her calling - teaching.
Over some 25 years, she taught language arts and coached basketball at several rural school districts, including Prague, Miami, Shidler and Pawhuska, before rising to superintendent and landing at Liberty four years ago.
"I'm concerned about the future for all children, not just the ones who can already afford to go to the private schools," she said. "I'm concerned about the quality of education for all, not just the chosen few."
As a Christian, Campo understands the desire of some parents to provide a religious education - but not at the expense of public schools.
"This is just me, but I raised my children with a firm belief in Jesus Christ," she said. "I think it's my responsibility, not a teacher's, to provide for my child's religious instruction."
Public education for all
The Henry law strikes at the heart of one of Campo's most fundamental beliefs, that the country has a responsibility to provide the best education possible for all children.
"They say, 'I'm a taxpayer. Why shouldn't my tax dollars go to where my kids go to school?' " Campo said. "The answer to that is, 'We all pay taxes to promote the common good. The roads. Social services. Schools. The prisons."
She grimaces when she mentions prisons. "Don't get me started there," she said, noting Oklahoma spends three times the amount on a prison inmate than what it spends to educate a child.
Proponents of the Henry law say the per-pupil funding follows the child to the private school, providing choice for parents and lowering school expenditures.
Campo says that's not so. Since the law was amended so the state administers the program, every school district in the state will see its state aid reduced to pay for the cost of private school scholarships, regardless of whether a student from that school district applies for and receives a scholarship, she said.
"When these children go to private schools, it doesn't decrease our costs," she said. "We still have to have facilities. We still have to have our teachers. We still have all the bills, but we have less revenue."
At Liberty, Campo does what she can to adapt to shrinking state aid, including implementing a four-day school week. Students still get state-required instruction time because the school day is longer - from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"Education is the great equalizer," Campo said. "And if we do not invest in children and in their education, if we are not their scaffold from poverty to promise, then we are failing our children. We're failing our future of our nation."
The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act
- Enacted in June 2010, the law allows parents of special needs children to obtain a scholarship funded by state education money to help pay for private school. The scholarships pay a limited amount toward tuition.
- Forty-three private schools are on the state-approved list that allows them to accept the students. Of those, only two are non-religious.
- In 2010-11, there were 98 requests for the scholarships, compared with 95 submitted this year as of October.
- At least $700,000 in public education funding has been spent this year for private school tuition under the Henry law, as of October.
- Tulsa area school superintendents believe the law violates the Oklahoma Constitution by sending public taxpayer dollars to private, sectarian institutions.
- Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City and co-sponsor of legislation, says the law gives parents choice over their child's education and fills a need for disabled children.
- Union and Jenks school districts filed a lawsuit in state court, as advised by a federal judge, to challenge the constitutionality of the law. Parents dropped a federal lawsuit filed against districts alleging districts did not pay out scholarships in 2010-11.
"(She) exhibits courage that few individuals possess. Donna is very much appreciated by those of us in the middle of the battle over the use of public taxpayer dollars for private school tuition by select individuals."
- Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman
"I have valued Donna's leadership regarding the voucher issue. She immediately recognized that this was an issue that has an impact on all students and schools and spoke up to sound the alarm that the American virtue of public education for all children was under attack."
- Union Superintendent Cathy Burden
"Ms. Campo is showing her passion for public school students, protecting resources that are constitutionally designated for her school."
- Jim Lamer, superintendent of Garber Public Schools and president of the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools
Original Print Headline: Standing together
Kim Archer 918-581-8315
Donna Campo, superintendent of Liberty Public Schools, chats with pre-kindergartners Carson King (left) and Kayden Evans following a Christmas program in Mounds. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World
Donna Campo applauds during a Christmas program inside the "old" Liberty gymnasium in Mounds. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World