A report issued last week warns political leaders against changing the state’s pensions plans, noting that “Oklahoma’s pensions have turned a corner, substantially outperforming typical state pension plans.”
Some state leaders, including Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller and Gov. May Fallin, both Republicans, want to change the state’s seven pensions from defined-benefit to 401(k)-styled plans, which don’t guarantee set retirement payments. They argue that overall unfunded liability of the plans, $11.4 billion, is a major problem that needs to be urgently addressed.
But the Economic Policy Institute, along with the Keystone Research Group, has prepared a report that argues the state has financially bolstered and improved the pension plan system in recent years and that such a change is unneeded and even risky.
In a news release announcing the report, one of its co-authors, Ross Eisenbrey, Vice President of the Economic Policy Institute, stated:
After some tough times in recent years and some significant sacrifices on the part of public employees, the Oklahoma pension system is finally in order. The state would be ill-advised to backtrack on this positive momentum by shifting its basic pension plan design. Why take this moment when Oklahoma finally has its pension house in order, to roll the dice with a radically new pension design?”
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, a think tank based in Tulsa, had earlier made these same arguments as state officials began to meet and discuss changing the pension systems.
The fact that some state leaders, such as Miller, want to press ahead with changes despite the growing financial stability of the pension plans make their motives suspect. Is this a case of legitimate financial responsibility or merely an ideological move by the GOP, which dominates state government, to cut the benefits of state workers to make way for more tax cuts? Meanwhile, public pension plans are under attack by the GOP leaders and operatives in states throughout the country, including California. Let’s be clear that it was unscrupulous banking practices, not public pensions, that caused the recent Great Recession.
Miller has said the change would only impact newly hired state workers, such as teachers and social workers, but he has yet to advance a specific plan with mathematical models that show how the existing plans would remain solvent in coming years.
I won’t rehash the report in detail, but I did find these two points interesting:
(1) The report noted the state’s two largest pension plans only pay annual benefits of $18,000 and $19,000, which is not “overgenerous,” especially given low salaries here among rank and file workers and teachers. Often, those pushing for change make the argument that state employees are somehow getting better retirement deals that those in the private sector. The report provides a better perspective of that argument.
(2) The report also notes that “Oklahoma employees contribute more to their state pensions, on average, than workers in most states . . .” The retirement contributions can take a large chunk out of a paycheck. State leaders often fail to mention this fact about the state’s pension plans when they make their arguments for change and instead try to focus the public’s attention on the large pensions of specific, former politicians.
The bottom line is that the move to “change” the state’s pension plans is really about “cutting” benefits, at least for new workers. It’s quite possible that by cutting benefits, the state could have a difficult time attracting teachers or state workers, who haven’t received an across-the-board raise in several years.
State leaders are also in the process of considering a report on public workers’ salaries and changing Oklahoma’s merit protection law.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable, given the GOP-dominance of state government right now and the obvious Republican agenda of spending cuts, for any state worker or teacher to be extremely worried about all the changes now under consideration at the state Capitol. Next year’s legislative session is shaping up to be an important one for state employees.
It’s intellectually dishonest for local corporate media outlets here to cover the state’s new A to F ranking of schools without mentioning how much education funding has been cut in Oklahoma in recent years.
It’s difficult to take the new ranking system seriously in the first place, given its inherent flaws, but to even discuss the issue without noting that of all states Oklahoma has cut education funding on a percentage basis the most since 2008 is a fallacy.
As I’ve written before, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown that Oklahoma has cut education funding by 23 percent since 2008. That’s a staggering cut. It’s simply indefensible to implement a new draconian ranking system of schools after such a decrease in funding. It’s also obvious that when considered together, the funding cuts and the A to F system represent the culmination of a right-wing agenda to damage the credibility of public education here. It’s a classic case of “starve the beast” ideology.
School superintendents, parents and education advocates here have spoken out against the ranking system to no avail yet. University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State researchers have found the system heavily flawed. But still state Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi and Gov. Mary Fallin support a system that relies too much on standardized testing and employs a questionable and not widely accepted mathematical model to calculate the grade for each school and district in the state.
It’s also absolutely unproductive to figuratively paint a school or a school district with a giant, red “F.” It serves no purpose, except to advance the conservative agenda of privatizing public education. Barresi and Fallin are Republicans, of course, and the GOP completely dominates state government right now.
Let’s be clear on this point: Education advocates are not claiming there shouldn’t be some testing or that those overall test results shouldn’t be available to parents. Transparency is always crucial when it comes to schools.
The system seems clearly biased on racial and class levels as well. The Oklahoma City School District, which has a diverse group of students when it comes to ethnicity and socio-economic status, received a F. The Edmond School district, with its more homogenized and wealthier student body, received an A-. Why attack inner city schools in this public, demeaning way? Don’t these results seem almost contrived as a “crisis” to precipitate some orchestrated takeover of at least some schools?
Fortunately, there is a new “Education Spring” developing in this country. Jeff Byrant describes it this way:
In a months-long Education Spring, students, parents, teachers and community activists staged boisterous rallies, street demonstrations, school walkouts, test boycotts, and other actions to protest government austerity and top-down “accountability” mandates that damage community schools and diminish students’ opportunities to learn.
It will probably take similar actions here to end the assault on public education. One simple strategy locally, as I mentioned earlier, might be to put pressure on media outlets to note how much education funding has been cut in recent years when they cover the controversial ranking system. There can be no real discussion of any school ranking system without acknowledging the state’s dismal funding of education. To not consider that issue as part of the overall equation when it comes to public education here is simply dishonest.
It’s been easy to expose the flaws in the A to F system, but the larger political issues underpinning the rankings—decreased funding for education and the conservative push for charter and for-profit schools—remain extremely important as well.
Oklahomans who oppose the A to F grading system in assessing the state’s schools might draw a lesson from a contentious public school board election Tuesday in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Bridgeport voters elected a slate of school board candidates Tuesday that essentially look skeptically at the nation’s school privatization reform movement. Privatization efforts often come after the installation of draconian school-quality assessment systems, such as the A to F system now used in Oklahoma, which are overly dependent on student test scores and have little meaning.
It’s 1,500 miles away from here, and it’s just one school district, but Bridgeport has lessons for those of us here and elsewhere that want to stop the so-called school “reform” movement that’s really about busting teacher unions and privatizing public education.
For now, Bridgeport schools are managed by Paul Vallas, who has overseen schools in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago. Vallas, according to critics, emphasizes too much student testing, and some class sizes in Bridgeport are now too large to enable student learning. Other critics argue Vallas is part of a larger, corporate-sponsored reform movement, which includes Michelle Rhee and Michael Bloomberg. On Tuesday, members of the Connecticut Working Families Party became a majority voting bloc on the school board, which could mean Vallas will lose his job.
I won’t go into the Bridgeport case more specifically, which has many twists and turns, because so much has been written about it. Here’s a thorough Salon.com article about the issue. Many educators believe the Bridgeport situation has national implications.
The A to F grading system for Oklahoma schools, instituted by schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, has generated a lot of its own controversy recently. Some state school superintendents think the system is flawed and have voiced their opposition to it. They are backed by a study conducted by Oklahoma State University and University of Oklahoma researchers, who found the grading system “has very little meaning and certainly cannot be used legitimately to inform high-stakes decisions.” Gov. Mary Fallin recently jumped into the debate and defended the system while trying to silence its critics.
Lost in the political squabbling and even the impeccable university research over A to F in Oklahoma are the larger implications of this new corporate-sponsored school reform movement that privileges excessive testing, rote memorization, charter schools and vouchers for private schools while attacking teacher unions. The people who support this movement are often the same people who support tax cuts that lead to the defunding of public education, which leads to fewer teachers and larger class sizes, which, in turn, lead to lower test scores and school rankings. Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of cutting funding for education on a percentage basis more than any other state since the Great Recession.
According to Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who is a critic of the privatization movement, Bridgeport is an example in which people have successfully fought back against the so-called reformers. Her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, points out the myth of the “failing” public school system, and she criticizes radical for-profit, free-market approaches to education.
The A to F ranking system for schools is a part of the strategy for the school privatization movement: Show the so-called failure of schools, then implement privatization policies. This ulterior motive is disguised under the rhetoric of “reform” and “accountability.”
Ravitch, in response to the A to F grading system in Oklahoma, writes, “When we regain our collective common sense, we will recognize school letter grades as a truly stupid idea, concocted to set schools up for failure and privatization.”
So Bridgeport should give people here who oppose the A to F system encouragement that they can organize successfully and get their voices heard, at least at the school district level. Simply put, people should elect candidates to school boards or state offices that oppose it. Bridgeport could also mean that the privatization movement in education has lost steam, and that’s hopeful news as well.