Education

Solid Plan To Increase Education Funding

Image of OU President David Boren

Finally, a prominent Oklahoma leader has come up with the barebones of what I view as a workable and perhaps revisable plan to help bolster education funding in the state.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren has proposed a ballot initiative to allow voters to raise the state’s sales tax by one cent to help increase Oklahoma’s dismal funding of education.

Boren, according to news reports, said the increase would raise $615 million a year, and that $378 million could be used to give public school teachers a $5,000 raise. Oklahoma has some of the lowest average teacher salaries in the country and currently faces a major teacher shortage because of it. The state also ranks 49th in the nation in per pupil funding.

Boren said the additional money, among other things, would go to fund incentive pay for teachers, an issue pushed by conservatives. Some of the money would also go to higher education to limit tuition increases.

One of the first and somewhat negative reactions to the proposal came from the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa progressive think tank, which argues the tax, if voted into law, would hurt lower income people the most because sales taxes, as we all know, are regressive. OKPolicy did note it supported more funding for education overall, but, as usual, it seems to want to have it both ways when it comes to funding education. It’s for it, but, well, there doesn’t seem any way to get it done. Parse through the lines in this final sentence of its statement about the proposal:

Oklahomans urgently need real tax reform to create a tax system that does not put the greatest burden on those who can least afford it and that collects enough to meet critical needs of Oklahoma families — not just for education but also health care, safe communities, and other public services to ensure a stable economy and strong quality of life.

Translation: We’re probably not going to support this proposal and we also know there’s not one iota of chance for “real tax reform” right now in our conservative-dominated state government. Also, education is important, but, well, is it AS important as, say, health care?

Watch for OKPolicy and the right-wing Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs to join together again to defeat another education funding proposal if Boren goes forward with it.

It seems to me that one obvious solution to the “regressive issue” when it comes to the sales tax increase would be to make it more progressive by exempting lower-income and middle-class income people from all or some of the “education tax” through income-tax credits or rebates. This might complicate the language on the petition drive to put the measure on the ballot, but at least it’s worth considering.

As it stands now, the state faces what will likely be a $1 billion shortfall next fiscal year, and state agency heads are getting informed that they could face cuts in their budgets. This complicates the ballot initiative even further.

If Boren and any type of coalition he helps to put together go forward with the proposal, those circulating the petition would need to collect 65,987 signatures in a 90-day period for the November 2016 ballot.

Sure, I agree that the tax proposal, as it stands, is regressive, but that can be fixed with credits and rebates in the tax code, and, it’s only ONE CENT. Even if the proposal stands as is, I would support it and urge other voters to do the same. We shouldn’t forget that lower-income people would benefit by better schools. This could enable them to raise their incomes. It goes together.

If this is what it takes to improve education funding, then we need to get behind it. We face a real emergency here when it comes to education funding. Let’s do something about it.

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Public Education Crisis Grows In Oklahoma

Teachers on Flickr The Commons

The Oklahoma teacher shortage crisis continues to worsen, and its impact on current students can’t be underestimated or presented in overly hyperbolic language.

State leaders, mostly Republican legislators and Gov. Mary Fallin, have failed to respond appropriately to the emergency by raising teachers’ salaries and enhancing their working conditions. In fact, Fallin and most of her fellow Republican leaders’ intention seems to be to do as much damage to our public schools as possible in order to privatize our basic educational system and turn taxpayer money over to private schools and companies.

Let’s be clear: All current public school students, even in the richest school districts, are affected by this leadership failure. It means fewer teachers and overcrowded classes. It means fewer programs. Overall, it tells the nation Oklahoma leaders care pretty much less if not the least of all about education than most states in the country.

The Oklahoma State Schools Board Association recently released the grim results of a survey of school districts it conducted during the first two weeks of August. The districts represent 80 percent of the state’s public school population. A news release from the organization about the survey first notes that there are about 1,000 teaching vacancies in the state and that 600 teaching positions have been eliminated since last year.

Here are the “highlights” of the survey:

About 75% of school leaders say hiring teachers was more difficult this year compared to last year.

The shortages are widespread, regardless of the district’s size and location and the subject area.

About 60 percent of districts anticipate needing to seek emergency teaching certifications to fill vacancies.

Almost half of districts expect to increase class sizes.

About one-third of school leaders said their schools likely would offer fewer courses this school year.
Special education, elementary, high school science, high school math and middle school math are the most difficult teaching positions to fill.

School leaders are deeply worried that the overall quality of teaching applicants is having a detrimental impact on student achievement.

Many newly hired teachers need extensive support and training, which increases pressure on school leaders who have limited time and resources with which to provide support.

Oklahomans need to know these basic facts as well: (1) The state has cut public education more than any other state since the economic downturn in 2008. (2) It has the lowest per pupil spending average than all of its neighboring states and in the region. (3) It has ranked in the bottom five—sometimes as low as 49th—for average teacher salaries for years.

It’s a no-brainer that Oklahoma’s anti-education mentality, combined with the current Republican dominance of state government, lead to increased social problems, high incarceration rates and low college graduation rates here. These are issues that affect us all in one way or another.

Only a seismic shift in the political milieu here will change things, and, frankly, that seems difficult to imagine. Meanwhile, mediocrity only creates more mediocrity. It’s a cycle that spins out of control for now. Sure, the state has some high-achieving students and schools, but it needs more, along with a renewed commitment to students at risk.

Our state leaders seem intent on starving our schools of needed funding and obsessively pressing a high-stakes testing agenda so they can claim public education is failing here. This way they can try to break teacher unions and turn tax dollars over to private schools or companies. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. This is a GOP political agenda.

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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.

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