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Governor Fallin Wants to Have “The Talk”

June 9, 2012

Governor Fallin yesterday said that “It is time to have a debate about the structure of our school systems.” This comes a week after the Oklahoman said that it’s time to have a serious discussion about funding public education. That gives us a lot to talk about. In essence, she wants to discuss consolidation of small school districts in Oklahoma, while trying not to lose political capital.

A good place to start would be by going back in time another week. As the legislative session was winding down, Oklahoma Policy Institute showed very clearly the extent to which state support for public education has been declining while enrollment in public education has been increasing. Another important consideration should be who gets to be included in the discussion – and what level of input they will really have.

When the SDE was writing the state’s waiver to No Child Left Behind, educators from all parts of Oklahoma were invited to the Oliver Hodge Building for a day of committee meetings. Many of the unanimous decisions of committee members were discarded, with SDE staff making clear that most of the framing of the waiver had already been done. The committee had been brought in as a formality.

Similarly, with every promulgation of rules for various education reforms in the state, a nominal comment period has been allowed. The SDE has even allowed interested parties to come speak to a room full of tape recorders over spring break.

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In any important policy discussion, several key elements need to be in place. You have to invite key people and seriously consider their input. You have to address key issues. You have to have facts. You have to consider unintended consequences. And you have to understand the limits to what people who are impacted by the decisions you make are actually willing to live with.

So if the governor wants to embark on a discussion about consolidation of school districts, she needs to understand the issues in play. Some school districts are so small, that they have an administrator serving as a combined principal/superintendent. Many of those same districts are in remote locations. As such, combining districts won’t necessarily close down buildings. The savings would be minimal. In the case that rural schools are closed and students have to be transported long distances with sparse population, the unintended consequences will include long bus rides for small children and drops in attendance.

Fallin speaks of the potential benefits that would come from consolidation, such as increased academic opportunities for students. There is no doubt that is a critical advantage of larger high schools. As the state pushes for increased virtual instruction, however, it could be that small districts can find creative ways to stay open, reduce costs, and improve the academic menu.

One thing they will all have to consider is the impact of a policy change on their chance for re-election. Most members of the legislature represent multiple school districts. Any vote to consolidate schools on a large scale would likely cost them votes. That’s probably why the governor wants to float the idea with the hope that districts will consolidate voluntarily. The problem is that districts have been able to do that for decades. Without legislative action, the number of school districts in Oklahoma will never change drastically. Wherever these policy discussions go, let’s just hope that the politicians having them truly have their constituents in mind.

 

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  1. June 9, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    LOL!! I was one of those who spoke to the tape recorder over Spring Break! I think your last statement is the kicker…will we be listened to, or will it be another room with tape recorders manned by policy makers who’ve already made mu their minds??

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  2. LSChristian
    June 9, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    You know the tapes are going directly into storage, proof that they asked for input.

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  3. Sharon Edge Martin
    June 9, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    You know, I went to one of those small schools. Among my classmates are the administrator of OSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine, the director of the March of Dimes in Tennessee, a Grammy winner, lawyers, school teachers, authors, and doctors. We did this without benefit of a foreign language department or a football team. Let’s hear it for small schools and individualized instruction!

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  1. June 12, 2012 at 7:20 pm
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