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2016: A Real Opportunity

December 31, 2015

Yesterday morning, The Atlantic published an article online titled, Can Schools Be Fixed? Normally, I cringe at articles with titles such as these, mainly because I cringe at the premise that public education is a broken system. Then again, maybe it is.

As a state and as a nation, we are deep down a rabbit hole of expensive reforms that haven’t done a bit of good. For example, the state of Oklahoma has spent millions of dollars with companies such as Battelle for Kids, which manages the convoluted roster verification process in Oklahoma.

By the way, BFK is technically a non-profit, albeit one with $25 million in annual revenue. GuideStar lists the mission of BFK thusly:

BATTELLE FOR KIDS IS A NATIONAL, NOT – FOR – PROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT PROVIDES STRATEGIC COUNSEL AND INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS FOR TODAY’S COMPLEX, EDUCATIONAL – IMPROVEMENT CHALLENGES OUR MISSION – DRIVEN TEAM OF EDUCATION, TECHNOLOGY, COMMUNICATIONS AND BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS SPECIALIZES IN CREATING STRATEGIES THAT ADVANCE THE DEVELOPMENT OF HUMAN CAPITAL, THE USE OF STRATEGIC MEASURES, AND THE IMPLEMENTATION OF EFFECTIVE PRACTICES IN SCHOOLS.

If that doesn’t make you want to teach, what does?!

What we’ve spent on lousy ideas is a sunk cost. We can’t get that money back. Eliminating processes such as these, which only hurt the effort to develop and maintain human capital quality teachers, should be a quick priority in 2016, now that those pesky feds have told us we can.

But I digress…

The Atlantic article gave different “scholars of, experts on, and advocates for K-12 education” a chance to give one reason for despair and one reason for hope.  My favorites were Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch. Here’s what Ravitch wrote:

Diane Ravitch, historian of American education and author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Reason for despair: In my field, public education is under unprecedented attack by a bipartisan coalition that calls themselves “reformers.” It includes the Obama administration, the Republican leadership, the Gates Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, hedge-fund managers, ALEC, and rightwing governors. They seek alternatives to democratically controlled public schools, such as privately managed charters, for-profit charter schools, virtual schools, and, in some states, vouchers for religious schools. The reformers’ excessive reliance on standardized testing as both the measure and goal of schooling has corrupted education. Because of the reformers’ attacks on teachers, experienced teachers are retiring early, and the number entering teaching has dropped sharply.

Reason for hope: The reasons for hope are two-fold: first, the public doesn’t want to abandon its community public schools. No district or state has ever voted to privatize its schools. Second, every so-called “reform” has failed to promote better education or equal opportunity for the neediest children. Neither charters nor vouchers consistently get better results for children, unless they exclude the weakest students. Measuring teachers by student test scores has been a costly failure. The great majority of the public admires their public schools and their teachers and wants them to be better, more equitably funded, not eliminated. If democracy works, these misguided “reforms” will be consigned to the ashcan of history.

This is why I have hope, the absence of which is hopelessness. Even though I was an English major in college, I’m not so much of an existentialist  that I feel hopeless. There are still things we can do to improve education in this country in general, and Oklahoma in general.  We are making strides in policy, but we have miles to go before we sleep.

After reading the Atlantic piece, Rob Miller issued the following challenge to his fellow Oklahoma bloggers:

Limiting myself to one reason for despair and one for hope, as the article’s contributors have done, is a tough task. It’s like asking someone to sum up the movie Clue in under a minute.

Despair: Oklahoma is dealing with at least a $900 million shortfall for the 2016-17 school year. This comes on the heels of cuts in state aid for the remaining six months of the current school year. These figures just add to the $900 million that Oklahoma school districts have lost in state aid since the 2008-09 school year.

All this, and state leaders are calling it an opportunity. Seriously.

You know the drill. More students. Unfunded mandates. Biggest cuts to schools in the country.

We’ve been beating the drum for years. Until now, no one who has the power to reverse the trend has been listening.

As Oklahoma school districts enter 2016, many face the prospect of losing three percent of their state aid, or at least the portion that goes through the formula. For large districts, this could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. For some, it could be millions.

The state leaders who created this crisis with tax cuts for the wealthy and tax credits for the energy sector blame the state deficit on OPEC. Sure, that’s part of the equation. It’s not the whole story, though.

My despair comes as someone who has to deal with the funding crisis head on. We cut positions after the 2002-03 shortfall. Many of those haven’t been added back. We cut positions after the 2009-10 shortfall. Again, we haven’t added all of those positions back.

This story is true throughout Oklahoma. Someone at the state level will need to act with courage to keep this problem from worsening.

Hope: To be fair, I can name two state leaders who seem to understand the folly of continuing to do what we’ve been doing for years: State Treasurer Ken Miller, and State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.

First, this from Miller (as published in the Oklahoman):

Miller argues that conservatives in the Legislature ought to stop trying to eliminate the state income tax, and instead work to revamp a tax structure that is currently premised on an economy that no longer exists. “The ideal tax structure,” he wrote, “would broadly apply low rates to generate a stable and diversified revenue stream that does not unfairly burden property owners, discourage consumption or reward idleness and retains the profit motive that drives entrepreneurship.”

Meantime in the near term, he says any additional tax cuts should be revenue neutral — with lawmakers getting rid of $1 of spending or credits for each dollar cut in taxes.

Given the significant fiscal challenges, tackling a new approach to budgeting will likely have to wait until economic conditions improve. But he said it has to happen at some point, and he’s right. Oklahoma cannot continue to rely so heavily on one-time funds, even if some of those accounts are made up of fee revenue that replenishes annually.

Miller sums it up well in remarks worth remembering: “Eventually, policymakers must start down a path toward long-term sustainability, rather than cobble together more short-term fixes that leave the same problems for future legislatures — until the one-time revenue well runs dry.”

Diversified…what’s that? Basically, Miller seems to be suggesting that our state needs to figure out how to fund public services using a variety of continuing revenue streams. The question is which members of the Legislature have the courage to do it.

Meanwhile, Jones has taken to social media online media to make a similar case.

GJ1

In an interview with NONDOC, Jones makes what reasonable people would call constructive suggestions.

In February, the governor ordered a freeze on hiring and giving raises. For the last couple of years, our office has been focused on conserving as much as possible to help make it through these tough times — reducing staff and cutting spending. We recently became aware that the very agency responsible for overseeing the governor’s order had given literally millions in raises based on a study.

If we are going to solve the tough problems facing this state, we need to have a comprehensive plan that is fair to all state employees and agencies. Giving themselves raises of 20 percent to 60 percent while telling others to cut back does little (to) build confidence. Solving our financial problems is going to require sacrifice by all.

There are some serious problems with how our state creates a budget. Last year, a small group put it together at the last minute and gave the House and Senate about 24 hours to vote on it. They used one-time funds to hold education dollars flat. They did nothing to halt tax cuts or tax credits that continue to cripple the budget.

Wait, this is supposed to be the part where we have hope.

Does it make you smile a little bit to know that we have 30 term-limited legislators? Some have been what I would consider friends to education. Some have merely said they were. I’ll be honest. I’m happy to see some of these people go, but I’ll be even happier if we have some strong challenges to some of the incumbents who will seek re-election in 2016.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, during the 2014 election cycle, only 49 of 126 seats in the Legislature that were  up for election had contests that went to November. In other words, 77 people were basically elected by acclimation. That’s a heck of a lot of unopposed seats.

THIS. IS. THE. OPPORTUNITY.

If we want to make a difference in 2016, we need to make sure more people hear Jones and Miller. They’re the ones making sense.

If we want to make a difference in 2016, we need to make sure more people – more strong candidates – run against incumbents, who simply aren’t helping the future of this state.

Look, I know the power of #oklaed. We can get the votes. Just a few weeks ago, the people who really care about our state’s children and the people who teach them voted in full force to earn several of us some national blogging awards. Collectively, we had two wins and four second-place finishes in the Edublog awards.

The category for which I won, Best Administrator Blog, kind of surprised me. Especially surprising was that Rob Miller’s View From the Edge came in second. (I don’t know about the rest of you, but I voted for Rob.)

I appreciate the support, and I’m honored to win, but that’s not the important thing to consider here. Two Oklahoma blogs came in first and second. There must have been a heck of a lot of us voting. There must have been a lot of our parents and friends voting too. We won over the likes of George Couros, who is an internationally-renowned writer and speaker.

Do Rob and I really have the two best administrator blogs in the country? Probably not. We just have amazing readers who are passionate about public education in this state.

Now let’s channel that same kind of passion towards making real change.

For one, we need to write more, as Blue Cereal Education is doing. We also need to hold our elected leaders accountable. Those 30 term-limited legislators scare me as much as anything. Some are going to try to make a splash and position themselves for a run at statewide office in 2018.

We need to find the candidates to run against legislators who simply don’t support public education. And we need to vote.

We have the passion. We have the awards.

Now we have the numbers.

Happy New Year.

Make 2016 an #oklaed statement year.

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  1. January 3, 2016 at 8:03 am
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