Education

Snark Attack

Image of Picasso work

Sometimes it seems just too obvious why education funding has dropped in Oklahoma more than any other state in the nation since 2008.

In a Saturday editorial brief under its Scissor Tales column, The Oklahoman weighs in with a bit of snarky criticism about last week’s education rally at the state Capitol that drew around 25,000 people. So this is what passes for reasoned logic around this place:

More than a soupcon of self-righteousness was in evidence at Monday’s state Capitol rally for school spending increases. Participants felt justified in taking a day off (and in many cases forcing their students to take a day off) to provide a teachable moment for legislators, to use a trite expression. Kids don’t have the right to skip school to provide a teachable moment as they define it. Teachers apparently do. With so much crowing about how many people the rally drew, we wonder what the crowd count would have been had the rally been staged during spring break. The Legislature was in session most of that week. How about a Saturday rally that wouldn’t affect the teachable moments that take place in classrooms on most Mondays? Nah. That would depress the participation rate. Like the rest of us, teachers need their weekends free.

Let’s get this straight. The Oklahoman is pretty much arguing that the fact some “self-righteous” and “crowing” teachers took a day off to ask for more education funding is the important issue here, not the fact that school funding has dropped by more than 22 percent since the economic downturn in 2008. Note, as well, according to the newspaper, that those pesky teachers “need their weekends free,” even though I bet many of them were grading or preparing for classes Saturday and Sunday.

In a previous editorial, The Oklahoman opposed a legislative plan that would divert money from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to boost school funding, but it offered no solutions to the problem of inadequate funding.

The newspaper, for years, has taken the position that since education funding receives the majority of the state budget it follows that somehow the state is doing the best it can. The newspaper has also argued that school administrators are never satisfied about the education money they receive from the state even though the premise has never and will never be tested.

Add to this the newspaper’s invalid argument that money has no bearing on student performance and its incessant argument that schools should be given more testing and assessment mandates even as their funding decreases. Throw in some basic snarky criticism of teachers.

These illogical arguments are at the core of the current assault on public education here and elsewhere in the country.

Rally Responses

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

The editorial response and news coverage by The Oklahoman of the education rally at the state Capitol Monday is an example of the attitudes and false claims that have made sure the state funds public schools at one of the lowest rates in the nation.

On the other hand, it didn’t help the public education cause here in the state that leading educators at the rally didn’t push for specific legislation or funding initiatives. The lingering residue from education-related State Question 744, which was crushingly defeated in 2010, probably didn’t help either.

In an historic event, an estimated crowd of 25,000 to 30,000 people, many of them teachers, administrators, students and parents, rallied at the Capitol Monday under the banner of asking for more money. They have an excellent case. Education funding has dropped by more than 22 percent since the economic downturn in 2008, and the state is almost always ranked among the lowest five states in the nation in per pupil funding if not dead last.

All this has translated into larger class sizes and low teacher salaries. This, in turn, has led to teacher shortages. Meanwhile, excessive testing and too much bureaucratic and political intrusion into the learning process, along with the inadequate funding, have combined to become a real assault on our public schools. There is a growing awareness of this assault throughout the nation. It still remains a question whether this awareness is happening in Oklahoma beyond those in the education field.

The Oklahoman, an ultra-conservative newspaper owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, responded on its editorial page with typical anti-education sloganeering as the rally neared. I will cite an editorial it published on the day of the rally. In that editorial, the newspaper argued the rally was a “disservice” to students. Many districts used a snow day to allow teachers and students to attend, and this was wrong, according to the newspaper.

But the most telling argument in the editorial deals with education funding. Here’s the argument verbatim:

Not one member of the Legislature is unaware of how public schools feel about education funding. Lawmakers understand that school budgets have been cut in recent years. But they also know the check written to common ed is always larger than any other government entity. And they’re aware that no superintendent believes his or her district gets enough financial help from the state — ever.

Let’s parse this a bit because there are standard conservative talking points or false claims here when it comes to education funding. First, yes, common education gets the most amount of funding from state government but that has no correlation to whether schools have sufficient money to operate. There are more than 670,000 public students in the state. It’s only logical that education would receive the most money. Second, it’s just a false and unprovable claim that school superintendents will never believe they get enough money from the state. Oklahoma has provided inadequate funding education for decades. The premise has not even been close to tested nor will it ever be. This is simply hyperbole.

Schools get the most money from the state. No school superintendent will ever be satisfied with the amount. Therefore, educators should shut up and stay home. This is what passes for intellectual argumentation in this state.

Meanwhile, in its main story about the rally in NewsOK.com, the web site of The Oklahoman, the reporters use comments by Brandon Dutcher, the senior vice president for the ultra-conservative think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). Dutcher is allowed to make two suspect claims: (1) Education funding is at an all-time high. (2) There’s no evidence that ties funding to school performance.

Dutcher claims to use figures from state, federal and local sources to make his funding claim, but the evidence is not provided in the story. Some school funding is obviously dedicated to specific uses and doesn’t mean it’s going directly into the classroom. As far as the school performance issue goes, the cause and effect evidence on a larger scale is quite clear. For example, Oklahoma has one of the lowest per pupil spending rates in the nation along with low college graduation rates. Is there a correlation? That’s worth a look at the very least. The point is that Dutcher is allowed to make his claims unchallenged in a story that should be focused more on claims from teachers and administrators. When’s the last time OCPA sponsored a rally that attracted 30,000 people to the state Capitol? This is simply biased reporting.

In the end, though, supporters for more school funding here perhaps should have rallied around a more specific initiative. It’s worth noting that House Bill 1017, the educational reform bill passed in 1990, had specific components. This is probably difficult to do now because of the 2010 defeat of State Question 744, which would have required the state to eventually fund education on a per pupil basis at a regional average. The question was crushed in an 828,529 to 189,164 vote. Two of its leading opponents were former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat who appeared in television ads urging people to vote against it, and Oklahoma Policy Institute director David Blatt, who spoke at Monday’s rally. His opposition was often cited by The Oklahoman as a reason to vote against the proposal.

As I noted earlier, The Oklahoman argues, “Not one member of the Legislature is unaware of how public schools feel about education funding.” That’s actually true. But they also know that voters here and supposedly those people who claim to be sympathetic to education concerns won’t even consider “average” school funding and at a “regional” level at that. Can we at least go from “abysmal” to “mediocre” funding then? Perhaps, SQ 744 was ill-advised or timed wrong, and there’s no sense in living in the past, but its overwhelming defeat told us much about voters and education politics here. What real progress can be made in this suffocating environment when it comes to education funding remains to be seen.

Common Core Spectacle

Image of Picasso's work

The Common Core spectacle at the state Capitol is once again showing the wide schism in the Republican Party in Oklahoma.

On one side are the Republicans who oppose the uniformed K-12 educational standards that were initially adopted by 45 states. They are led at this point, it seems to me, by Gov. Mary Fallin who issued a recent statement in support of ditching Common Core standards for English, language arts and mathematics and developing new state standards.

After the Senate Education Committee voted to approve a bill that does just that, Fallin said:

As we work to increase classroom rigor and raise the academic bar in our schools, I have been clear that Oklahoma must take the lead in developing and implementing our own standards and assessments. To protect the principle of local control, and to resist federal overreach from Washington and the Obama administration, I signed last year an executive order outlining Oklahoma's independence in implementing higher standards and student assessments.

Note the anti-President Barack Obama and federal government rhetoric. In Oklahoma these days, that’s a clear political winner no matter what the issue or how much it’s stretched, especially in this case. Obama supports Common Core, but the federal government didn’t develop the standards. It was education leaders and the National Governors Association that did it.

On the other side of the issue on the Republican side are the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, an ultra-conservative publication. A recent editorial in The Oklahoman argued “ . . . opponents rarely criticize the actual standards. Most opposition is based on innuendo, conjecture, misinformation and disinformation.”

What gets lost in all the bickering over federal control are teachers and students.

Teachers here have prepared for months to implement the standards. If Oklahoma ends Common Core, all their work has gone for nothing. They will have to start over with new state standards. That will be demoralizing.

Students are left behind by sudden changes in curriculum and mixed messaging by authority figures over basic intellectual knowledge. They become political footballs tossed around by two GOP groups as the intraparty fighting continues over how best to criticize Obama rather than educate students.

Meanwhile, the GOP has allowed state funding to schools since 2008 to drop on a percentage basis more than any other state in the nation.

Indiana has become the first state to stop implementing Common Core after signing on to the new standards, and other states, especially conservative states, will probably follow their example. With Fallin’s support, Oklahoma could easily follow Indiana’s example.

The idea that states shouldn’t share standards because of a presumed overarching federal control ignores globalization and the impact of the Information Age on the world’s knowledge base. We live in an extremely connected world these days. Isolation is really no longer an option. Oklahoma should always look elsewhere for standards that clearly work.

The idea that Oklahoma schools, in particular, should be “protected from federal interference,” as Fallin has argued when it comes to Common Core, doesn’t mean much when it comes to basic intellectual development of students. Does any Republican, including Fallin, really believe that the federal government is against students becoming proficient in math and English, that it will somehow interfere with that process?

But then it’s an election year, and this type of reductionist sloganeering works here.

Syndicate content