Forum Ideas Ignore Coming Education Funding Apocalypse

The idea getting discussed among local economists to allow school districts to use local millage money without restrictions to help fund better teacher salaries and raises in primarily urban areas of the state ignores the hard reality that Oklahoma leads the nation in cuts to education funding since 2008.

It also goes against this basic principle outlined in Section 13, Article 1 of the Oklahoma Constitution, “The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.” Note the words “free” and “all” in that sentence. I believe in that sentence with every fiber of my body, and I hope you do, too.

The Oklahoma City Chamber, according to media reports, recently held a economic forum about educational funding in light of the election failure of State Question 779, which would have raised the state sales tax by one cent and given “all” Oklahoma children who attend “free” public schools the benefit of getting taught by teachers who would have received $5,000 annual raises.

As we all know, Oklahoma is mired near the bottom in the nation in teacher pay and per pupil spending, and educators are fleeing the state for better pay and better overall treatment to geographical spaces that actually value education. Since 2008, Oklahoma has cut per pupil spending by more than a whopping 26 percent. Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma Legislature decided in its really wise, deliberative ways to cut state funding for higher education by nearly 16 percent this fiscal year.

All these cuts can be related to recent income tax cuts given to the state’s wealthiest citizens and tax breaks for oil and gas companies, which have caused an earthquake crisis here through the wastewater disposal process used in hydraulic fracturing.They rob our schools and damage our houses, and then depict themselves as heroes and champions of state economic development with the support from the local media.

But don’t count on any of that to get fully discussed, even with less directness, in a chamber-sanctioned event, not that the state’s academic economists aren’t honestly trying to seek solutions to the catastrophe, which, if the $600 million budget shortfall prediction for next fiscal year holds true, is only going to get worse. My prediction is that the shortfall will actually grow larger.

The basic problem with using local millage money for salaries and raises with no restrictions in terms of receiving state funding is that it determines winners and losers. The affluent school districts, let’s say Edmond with its strong support for education, will win while smaller, rural districts will lose. It will be a two-tiered system, and there’s no guarantee the larger districts in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, will benefit from a new funding formula.

All this leads to the decades-long discussion about school consolidation and what The Oklahoman editorial board sees as “welfare” for rural communities.

Opening up more spending through generating local money and school consolidation becomes even more problematic when you consider president-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and their ideas to launch a major effort to privatize the nation’s schools.

Here are just two major initiatives found on his campaign website that Trump has promised to pursue:

Immediately add an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice. This will be done by reprioritizing existing federal dollars. Give states the option to allow these funds to follow the student to the public or private school they attend. Distribution of this grant will favor states that have private school choice, magnet schools and charter laws, encouraging them to participate.

Anyone committed to public education should read the entire proposal. DeVos is widely known as a proponent of privatizing public education. Her Wikipedia profile describes her as an “American billionaire” (the family business is Amway) along with “ties to the Reformed Christian community.”

Be sure to also read a recent article about the issue of school privatization in the New York Review of Books by Diane Ravitch, one of the nation’s most well known proponents of public education.

My point here is that the economists here are missing the larger issues: (1) Oklahoma, as a state, has an abysmal dismal track record over several decades in funding education at all levels, and that’s the problem that needs to be addressed before anything else, and (2) the coming Trump apocalypse will include the devastation of public schools and undoubtedly bring about even more segregation on different levels of race, income and geographical location.

Also, parsing through the arcane methods of funding for public education is an exercise in futility when the state’s largest newspaper makes an editorial comment like this: “Put simply, many school officials do view education spending as a form of welfare. And they prefer equalized failure to a less equitable funding system that allows some areas to flourish.” That’s an awful bit of evil lying, and whoever wrote those sinister-like sentences knows it. The opposite is true. School officials believe education spending helps get children out of poverty and they want “all” (remember, it’s in the constitution) children in all areas “to flourish.”

Economic forums that don’t address systemic problems and the lies of the ultra-conservative local newspaper, which is widely hated by the dwindling segment of rational, intelligent people left here aren’t going to amount to any progress in increasing school funding or giving teacher raises.

Let’s be blunt: A majority of Oklahoma voters have spoken that they really don’t want a functional public school system in this state and probably won’t for decades to come. So be it.