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Flat Education Budget Not Much Of A Shield

Image of Joy Hofmeister

The fallout to education from next year’s fiscal year budget became clear last week when Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister warned Oklahomans to get ready for school closings, teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.

As you might recall, I recently noted that Gov. Mary Fallin recently praised the budget as “a fiscally responsible blueprint for state government” while pointing out, “I’m proud legislators and I were able to pass a budget in challenging times that shields common education, our largest and one of our most important expenses, from budget cuts.”

Common education received what everyone calls a “flat budget,” but flat budgets don’t leave enough money to pay for higher operating costs due to basic inflation, testing mandates, rising enrollment and insurance increases.

A flat budget for education and any state agency, in essence, means a smaller budget because of the basic structures of economics in a capitalistic society. So does the budget, as Fallin noted, really “shield” education? Given the fact the funding for Oklahoma education dropped by 23.6 percent from 2008 to 2014, the most in the nation, the answer would have to be a resounding no.

Here’s an Oklahoma Watch story by Nate Robson about some specifics of the education cuts. I want to deal with the larger issue of cutting funding to education.

The conservative qualification about denying public education adequate funding always goes along the lines that “money isn’t always the answer” to better learning outcomes or “educators will always ask for more money,” which carries the implications they don’t really need it.

Conservatives have also created high-stakes and costly testing mandates and school grading systems that through their structures will result in what they deem as failure and “crisis.” This manufactured “crisis” of failing public schools is a methodical and long-term strategy to shift away the debate over societal problems, such as childhood poverty and hunger, which do affect learning outcomes. Instead, many conservatives dismiss these concerns and push for privatization in education as some magic answer to a problem that doesn’t exist.

What I’m going to write next will seem hyperbolic to some, but a growing number of people are waking up to it on the local level. Conservative “reforms” of education are about destroying public education and teacher unions, and in the long-term it threatens our democracy. Is there anything more despised by conservatives, in a general sense, than teacher unions? These reforms are also about shifting taxpayer money to private, for-profit companies and operations.

Conservative educational reforms threaten democracy because they create an imbalance of opportunity between social classes. They especially leave the marginalized more vulnerable to a lack of opportunity. They enhance the opportunities of a privileged group of people, who then use their privilege to enhance their own privilege. The losers in this arrangement also now include many, if not most, children in a shrinking middle-class.

Some want to see these ideas as some sort of wild conspiracy theory, but a couple more generations of these conservative attacks on public education could lead to vastly different educational systems between classes. It certainly will diminish this country’s role as a superpower, which needs a widespread educated citizenry as much as a huge military apparatus to retain its status. Maybe it’s too late.

There’s always room to improve learning outcomes or improve a particular school, but when the system is intentionally and methodically starved of money and when underfunded schools and children are branded as failures, there can be little hope for systemic increases in achievement.

Of course, the rich kids don’t have anything to worry about.

Oklahoma’s cuts to education in the last several years and this year’s flat budget to fund schools don’t bode well for the immediate future in this state. The 3.5 cut to higher education will also lead to higher tuition and more student loan debt. That’s not a good sign for prosperity either.

In Oklahoma, under the current framework, many students will be attending K-12 schools with larger class sizes and less personal instructional attention, and then when they graduate they will face steeper college tuition rates that can lead to debilitating loan debt.

This framework, unless it changes, will have a significant impact on our state in terms of the quality of life here, social problems and economic development.

What Happened In Nevada Should Stay In Nevada

Teachers by Andre Carrilho,

An editorial in The Oklahoman lauding Nevada’s new law that authorizes education savings accounts or vouchers for all school children fails to address a serious argument against such a policy.

This is the anti-voucher argument the editorial ignores: There is no definitive proof that privatizing education works to improve learning outcomes.

The pro-voucher crowd simply assumes through wishful thinking that competition through the private sector always produces a better product. But students are not products or consumers. They’re students, and government public schools are better positioned to meet their needs in a participatory democratic society and have a long, successful historical record of doing so.

Conservatives will always point to high-stakes testing scores as the barometer of success, but the measurement of what a person learns or how much she has achieved in her ability to learn is complicated and difficult to quantify. The movement to give students and their parents taxpayer-funded vouchers to use in private schools will not solve anything because much of what needs to be solved in our society—poverty, income inequality, poor medical care, hunger—is far more important to school success than unproven conservative dogma.

Public schools are on the frontline of local engagement in our culture and often receive extremely close scrutiny. Conservatives in places like Nevada and Oklahoma have successfully shifted the debate from societal problems faced by public school students and inadequate school funding on a local level to obsessive free-market discussions and inane philosophical predictions.

Nevada, as the editorial points out, will soon begin offering universal vouchers to all parents of school children. These vouchers, or what are getting called education savings accounts, will contain some money the state allocates for individual students. The parents can use that money for private schools and other educational programs, such as those for special needs students.

The new law is conservative radicalism at its most extreme so it's no wonder The Oklahoman hopes “Oklahoma legislators pay attention to Nevada, where Republican lawmakers are proving far less timid and far more conservative.” In other words, we should model Nevada.

The editorial makes one lone attempt to acknowledge the opposition to the new Nevada system. It quotes a Nevada lawmaker, who apparently said, “We might as well open the door and throw the money out the window.” I actually agree with this overall assessment, but it’s a reductionist presentation of the arguments against vouchers.

Here’s an argument the editorial doesn’t address: There have been no definitive studies that show vouchers work to improve learning outcomes on a larger basis. Take a look at charter schools, for example. The performance difference between charter schools and regular public schools, according to one education expert, is difficult to determine, often dependent on how studies are framed or even interpreted. What’s clear to me, however, after going through a cursory look at reported findings of such studies is that there’s no clear argument that charter schools are doing any better than regular schools in terms of learning outcomes.

The amount of state money allocated to parents for their student’s education here or elsewhere, of course, would never be enough to pay for high-range, expensive private schools in which the vast majority of students are privileged and come from wealthy families.

Not all liberal parents are against charter schools and many welcome the idea of school choice within their districts so the editorial’s lament that Nevada lawmakers are “far more conservative” than their Oklahoma counterparts is both irrelevant to the main argument and shows the voucher-movement or the education savings account movement, as I’ve argued, is simply based on unproven conservative dogma about the free market and capitalism.

The voucher movement is about shifting taxpayer dollars to the private sector and damaging public schools and teacher unions. It’s certainly not about improving learning outcomes. First, make sure a student isn’t hungry. Second, make sure a student isn’t hungry. Where does that show up on the assessment form for a school and how much is it weighted?

As education activist Diane Ravitch writes about the new Nevada law, “To destroy public education in pursuit of competition is just plain ignorant or mean-spirited. There is no evidence to support this policy. It won’t improve education. It won’t increase equity. It won’t inspire excellence. It will lead to greater inequality and greater segregation. It is bad for our democracy.”

Oklahoma cut funding to public education by 23.6 percent from 2008 to 2014, the most in the nation. The state’s abysmally low salaries for teachers have led to a teacher shortage here. This is the last place in the world to “throw the money out the window.” But don’t think it couldn’t happen here.

Oklahoma County Jail Saga Needs Liberal Touch

Oklahoma County Jail by Corry Young on Flickr’s The Commons

The continuing Oklahoma County jail saga is a microcosm of failed conservative ideology when it comes to incarceration in this country.

The ideology is two-fold: Lock up as many offenders as possible in an effort to supposedly deter crime and don’t invest adequate resources into correctional facilities to ensure inmates feel the pain and punishment of their consequences. In a state like Oklahoma these days, Republicans often push the ideology, and many Democrats go along with it afraid to be seen as soft on crime.

The county jail, of course, is a county issue so it makes it seem less partisan than the correctional issues created by the state’s high incarceration rates, but the overall ideological framework underpins it all the same.

The U.S. Justice Department found 60 civil rights violations with the jail back in 2008, and essentially put county officials on notice that they needed to either fix the problems or face a federal takeover.

The county has, indeed, fixed most of the problems outlined in a 2008 report, which included high rates of violence between inmates and guards yet the basic design of the jail itself creates some of the problems. That means the county has to massively renovate the jail or build a new one, which makes the most sense. Each approach would cost millions upon millions of dollars and require some type of tax increase. The federal government, according to media reports, has apparently signaled it was moving forward with a lawsuit to force the issue.

In the past, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and other county officials have promoted a small increase in the county sales tax of only half-a-cent or less, but that hasn’t proven to be popular with voters. If the feds take over, homeowners would automatically face high property taxes to pay for the project. Something has to give eventually.

Conservatives, of course, love to point our their overall ideology is dictated by strict, fundamentalist readings of the U.S. Constitution, but the Eighth Amendment is clear: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” We might debate what constitutes an excessive bail or fine or cruel and unusual punishment, but the intention seems clear enough. The amendment establishes basic human rights for criminal offenders. The jail issue, then, is not going to go away, given the current federal involvement and the constitutional issues raised by the Eighth Amendment.

High incarceration rates here and elsewhere in the country come with a huge cost of taxpayer money. Conservatives will never solve their contradiction of voting to do things that cost a tremendous amount of money while cutting taxes at the same time. In fact, a more liberal approach to decrease incarceration rates of non-violent offenders would allow more money to be spent on education, which could lead to better personal decisions that lower the incarceration rate.

The point is that the solution to the county jail problem is a liberal one: Lower incarceration rates through drug courts and creative sentencing and vote to invest in a new jail through a small tax increase that allows for rehabilitation to reduce recidivism.

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