Public Education Crisis Grows In Oklahoma

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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.

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.

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