Letter to our Legislators
|Dear Committee Member:Please allow me to introduce myself. I am a longtime Oklahoma educator who writes the blog okeducationtruths. I know that several of this committee’s members have read the blog or interacted with me on Twitter. For those of you who haven’t, I have spent much of the last two years writing about education policy issues and trying to shed light upon parts of the daily life of public education that teachers and patrons typically don’t get to see.
Although I speak only for myself, the number of people who receive my blog through email and follow my Twitter and Facebook pages has been growing steadily. I seem to have found a niche with people who want to change the narrative about public education in this state. Collectively, the parents, educators, and other concerned citizens I reach each day have a number of concerns. Foremost among these is school funding.
As you begin the legislative session this week, I know you will have many challenges, especially as it relates to public education. You all know the numbers, but let me repeat a few of them. Over the last six years, public schools have enrolled an additional 31,000 students and have had less money with which to serve them. This has resulted in larger class sizes and reductions to tutoring, transportation, and other ancillary services that directly impact students. Meanwhile programs designed to help students needing remediation – ACE and RSA – continue to receive funding well below the levels originally intended by lawmakers.
While the budget request you have received from the state superintendent calls for nearly $175 in new funding for common education, less than 35% of that would flow through the funding formula. The next largest increase is for health benefits. Third is support for various reforms. While it is important to commit funding to new programs that take so much of schools’ time and energy, it is equally important to support the teachers and staff who come to work each day to serve Oklahoma’s children.
Oklahoma has a growing teacher shortage, which probably is not helped by being one of the lowest-paying states in the country. While Superintendent Barresi has made a campaign push for $2,000 stipends for teachers, not all districts in the state have the available fund balance to make such a stipend possible. The ones that do would not be able to sustain it as a permanent salary increase. Even if all teachers in the state received a $2,000 raise, however, Oklahoma would still rank in the bottom five states in the country for teacher pay.
What this means is that as standards for student learning and school accountability increase, schools have less money to improve classroom materials, provide quality professional development, and recruit and retain exceptional educators. We are at a critical point in public education, and we watch a stream of teachers leave the state or retire each year, leaving our classrooms to the less-experienced.
That said, Oklahoma’s teacher preparation programs continue sending well-prepared young teachers into our schools. More often than ever, though, they lack the veteran mentors that help with turning potential into greatness.
While I will probably have opinions – and write about them – over most of the legislation you consider in committee, funding is paramount. That in mind, here are my three main considerations as the session begins.
1. Refill the funding formula. Last year, the Legislature had more money to appropriate than at any other time in state history. Even so, state support for public education had not been restored to the level of FY 2008. At a minimum, schools need support at that level, plus consideration for growth in enrollment and a cost of living adjustment.
2. Fully fund reforms. Three years ago, Superintendent Barresi told superintendents that the reforms she was pushing could be implemented with no new funding. Now she is asking for more than $26 million in new money to fund them. Common Core, TLE, RSA, and ACE all take money to implement well. They also take time. School districts can get students where they need to be with both of these resources. Most critical is Reading Sufficiency. At current funding levels, many schools have to decide between tutoring during the school year or having summer programs. The supports they do provide span less time and may not include all the grades principals would like to serve. Also consider that we keep increasing what we spend on testing. If the Legislature would reduce the amount of required testing, this expense could be lessened.
3. Plan long-term for raises. Supporting a teacher raise of $2,000 by adjusting the state minimum salary and dedicating funding to the formula would be a start. Don’t stop there. Be bold. Think five years down the road and ask yourself where you want to see public education in the future. While state voters rejected a plan to trigger automatic teacher salary increases a few years back, they would probably support raises for teachers if the Legislature phased them in over time. We don’t know what Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas will be paying their teachers in five years. There’s a lot we don’t know. We can be certain, however, that we will continue to see shortages in the profession without taking strong action. A one-time $2,000 stipend that only a few districts would be able to afford is not a game-changer.
Over the next few weeks, you will likely hear from many Oklahomans who share my concerns. I’ve never seen so many well-informed parents become active voices for changing the narrative and direction of public education. You’ll hear from me personally, not in my blogger voice. You’ll hear from my friends and neighbors who also have children in school.
We all want the same thing: good schools for our children. Getting there simply takes good people and good ideas. Both of those take the full support of the Legislature.
Thank you for your time, and your service to the State.
Readers, make sure they hear your voice and your words too.