Oklahoma public education and the challenges and needs it faces are complex and multi-faceted. Consequently, our legislative policy must be also if we are going to address the issues head on.
First, let me say that I have worn the shoes of a parent looking for the best education option for their child (I only had one). And that was my priority - him. At that time many years ago, I didn't really think that much about the role of public education in the greater context of how it impacts our community's future, workforce pipeline, or the societal toll it takes when our education systems aren't well-oiled machines, etc.
Today, in my role as a state legislator, I must look at the concept of public education from a broader perspective. I firmly believe, along with many noted community organizations, that having access to a free, quality public education for every child is absolutely critical to our viability as a state.
There is no question about that.
Education affects every citizen, whether you have school-aged children or not.
We have a public duty to prepare our youngest citizens for life by giving them knowledge and skills that enable them to build a successful life of their own, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. That helps not only them, but every one of us in the community - less crime, less need for social services, more economic activity for our businesses, higher quality employees which helps us attract new business here, more taxes to improve our infrastructure and provide quality services to citizens, etc.
Our education system has been systematically defunded for years and we have a lot to make up for. We must protect education funding.
I have watched our public education system over the last decade be systematically defunded and undercut by our state legislature, which I believe critically weakened it to the point of alarm. We didn't pay our teachers what they should have been paid, we removed all incentive for getting higher levels of professional development for them, which is very important to have the best talent teaching our kids, and we paid little attention to investment into the classroom student-to-teacher ratio, and the ratio of the number of students to counselors. Not only that, but classroom materials critical to student learning were woefully aged and inadequate! We finally passed an historic teacher pay raise in 2018 but it was pushed to the forefront because of a massive teacher and parent strike on the Capitol. We still have much work to do.
Changing social circumstances have dramatically affected our public school system and we need to give our schools the tools to deal with this.
In Oklahoma we have seen a major shift in our economy where we have more poverty/lower wage jobs that are service industry related, vs. strong middle class jobs that provide a living wage. We've also experienced significant movement to the suburbs and out of urban areas. Consequently, we see that reflected in the level of need in our public school population - poverty has become an overriding issue.
In Tulsa Public Schools, a vast majority of students meet the qualification of receiving a free or reduced price lunch. And many of our districts that are near TPS also have a high level of poverty (In Union Public Schools for example, 70% of its student population qualifies for free/reduced price lunch). In Oklahoma City Public Schools, their percentages were so high that they no longer have to file reports with the federal government to get the free/reduced lunch funding. Every student in OKCPS gets a free lunch.
In our schools today, we are seeing food insecurity, a lot of single parent families, and a lot of struggling to survive or raise a family. All of that results in a student population with a higher trauma score - Oklahoma has one of the highest levels of adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Then consider this - we also have a societal culture that's been zealous about over incarceration, which adversely affects children. (We still incarcerate more people than just about any other state or country for that matter, but that's another issue we must tackle. Click here to see my position on Criminal Justice Reform)
Combine all the above with a system that has been systematically defunded, was woefully underfunded compared to other states to begin with even before the 2008 Great Recession, an education workforce that has been disrespected and inadequately paid and poached by other states because we allowed it to happen and a lack of an adequate ratio of student/teacher and student/counselor, and what do you have? The perfect storm.
As public policy officials, we also have a duty to look at the underlying conditions that are feeding into the societal challenges we see manifested in our kiddos, and which, therefore, are feeding today's challenges faced by our public education system.
Here are the actions needed to counter what our schools are dealing today with so that kids can get the education they deserve.
We need to develop plans and steady funding that:
- Ensures we retain our existing teacher base, and recruit the highest quality of educators we can. Because of low pay, and significant challenges, many of our teachers either left the profession or were recruited to other states where they were welcomed, respected and paid appropriately. In the meantime, we have had to hire record levels of people who are not trained educators and get them emergency certified. While I applaud these folks willingness to help our kiddos learn, we will need teachers that were taught how to teach and know how kids learn.
- Adds teachers to lower the student-to-teacher ratio. The lower the ratio, we need for more teachers, which also means more classrooms are needed. Infrastructure that accommodates this is critical.
- Adds counselors to lower the counselor-to-student ratio - Oklahoma's current ratio is 451 students to 1 counselor! It is unrealistic to expect our teachers to be the counselor for all of their students. Counseling takes unique skills and given our student population's challenges of poverty and trauma, we need more counselors than ever so that we can get our students into a psychological position to learn. They need skills to cope and hope. It's difficult to learn when you don't know where your next meal is coming from or you're worried about your home life. Moreover, Oklahoma doesn't even require ANY school counselors for elementary schools! We need to catch problems early to ensure early childhood learning is solid and therefore need to add this requirement.
With Oklahoma's trauma levels and particularly mental health and COVID, we need this now.
- Ensures there is adequate classroom funding for up-to-date textbooks and other critical learning tools.
Vouchers - they take money away from our public school system and are not good policy. We need to protect our education funding.
I was recently asked whether the dollars we pay as taxes should go with the children vs. going to the buildings. This particular person believed our current funding system sends the money to the buildings. I don't view it that way at all. It's going to a system whose responsibility is to provide a free, quality public education system for every child, regardless of socio-economic conditions, or ability - that's our constitutional duty. But it's also our responsibility - the Oklahoma legislature and all community leaders - to ensure that system is provided with adequate resources with which to do the job well. And it's been a while since we've done that.
If we had a system where the dollars went with the child, then why would we require people such as myself to pay taxes that go into a school system when I have no child in it? Under that scenario, would we stop paying taxes that go into schools once our children are no longer school age, so only those who have children in the system would pay the cost? We know that is not possible because we would no longer have a public school system for anyone.
This is why I am opposed to vouchers, among several other important reasons having to do with 1) transparency of how private/charter schools use public funds 2) their limited acceptance policies, etc. I believe pulling dollars out of an already weakened public school system will only exacerbate our ability to turn it around. But we are moving in the right direction and now is not the time to slow down the progress!
I want to instead work hard to make improvements to our education system so that we can all be proud of what we offer our families. We didn't get to the place where we are overnight. It took years and years of lack of attention and systematic erosion of critical resources. It will take years and years to get back to where we want, on top of us working to address the social circumstances that are feeding into our challenges.
There are many pockets of excellence in today's system. I would encourage all parents and citizens to get involved making your school better. Do you know your school board representative or your principal? I would encourage you to sit down with these folks and go over thoughts about the district's needs. With committed and involved parents, legislators, community leaders, administrators and teachers, we can all work together to get our kids to the top. It takes a village!