Prospects for a Math-Science School Dim in Wake of Oklahoma House Vote
Plans to open a one-year residential high school next year for Oklahoma's brightest students in mathematics and science were in doubt last week, as the House approved an alternative proposal to establish several smaller programs throughout the state.
The measure, submitted by the House appropriations committee earlier this month and approved on the House floor last Wednesday by a 61-to-37 vote, would provide no state funds to build a new Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, and only $900,000 for curriculum development and instruction at an existing facility in Oklahoma City.
In addition, the bulk of the $3 million for the school that had been approved earlier by the Senate would be used instead to establish two-month summer institutes at 15 colleges and universities, and to create a team of top math and science teachers who would hold one-week programs at schools statewide.
Because the House and Senate bills differ widely in their funding proposals, the legislature's General Conference Committee on Appropriations will be given the task of finding a compromise between the two chambers.
Officials in the state say the debate over the special school reflects deep-rooted conflicts between rural and urban interests, and between advocates of programs for highly talented students and those who see such efforts as elitist.
Similar conflicts emerged in many of the six states--North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi--that have created similar state schools for the gifted during the past decade, said Stephanie A. Marshall, presi4dent of the National Consortium of Specialized Schools in Mathematics, Science, and Technology. "There will always be discussions of elitism," Ms. Marshall said.
But observers in Oklahoma say resistance to the proposed school is especially vehement in their state, where populist values are strong.
The Senate bill, which was passed by a 28-to-20 vote in March, would have provided the proposed school with the full $3 million requested by Gov. Henry Bellmon. But it reduced the length of the program from two years to one. And it stipulated that only $2 million of the funds could be used for construction and that that amount would have to be matched by funding from private sources.
An amendment that would have delayed funding for construction of the school for three years failed on a tie vote. The program's opponents, however, won a major concession by forcing the addition of $1 million to the bill for summer science institutes at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.
The bill that emerged from the House appropriations committee eliminated all funding for construc8tion of the school and earmarked $2.3 million for alternative programs.
Under the House bill, 15 colleges and universities each would hold two-month summer math and science institutes for about 100 qualified students, and four universities would host a new multiple-disciplinary program for the gifted and talented.
The bill also would create a program to bring top math and science teachers to each school district for one week of the school year. The new programs would be administered by the state education department.
Dan V. Little, chairman of the proposed state school's board of trustees, said he supported the creation of the summer institutes, but added that they cannot be a substitute for a residential school.
"They cannot in six or eight weeks provide the academic opportunities and challenges of a nine-month program," he argued.
Mr. Little also said if the House bill emerges from the conference committee intact, the school's board may attempt to finance construction of the school entirely through private contributions, a daunting task given the state's troubled economy.
Rural Lawmakers' Concerns
The House amendments to the Senate-approved bill were lauded by rural legislators, who have pushed to have the specialized instruction for students moved out of Oklahoma City and brought closer to home.
Noting that the state school would enroll only 300 students a year, Senator Carl C. Franklin, a Democrat from Shawnee, said, "I'm concerned about giving all of the children a chance, instead of a chosen few.''
"I couldn't see this school being nearly as good an investment as dividing the money up so other students could get it," he said.
The school's proponents, however, argued that talented students would not benefit nearly as much from summer institutes as they would from a year-long residential program.
"They took an idea that was flawed and made it worse," said Representative Don Ross, a Democrat from Tulsa. "It became just another political deal."
"We continue to build these edifices of mediocrity, and this is another," Mr. Ross continued. "Gifted students who are locked into mediocrity are also at-risk."
Other critics of the school have argued that it would drain local schools of their best students and that teenagers are too young to spend a year away from home. But most of the opposition appears to center on the decision to place the school in Oklahoma City.
"Why does everything have to go to Oklahoma City?" asked Senator Franklin of Shawnee. He and other rural lawmaker predicted that the city's students would reap most of the benefits of the program.
But Mr. Little contended that "the exact opposite is true."
The school would ensure fairness in enrollment, he argued, by allowing equal numbers of students from each Congressional district to attend. A similar enrollment formula is used in North Carolina, which created the nation's first state school for mathematics and science several years ago.
"It's in the rural areas where the curriculum and the course opportunities are the most limited," he said. "It will be the bright and gifted students from the rural areas who will benefit the most."