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Challenge Accepted: State of the State Preview

January 31, 2016 1 comment

In advance of tomorrow’s State of the State address to be given by Governor Fallin, some of my rebel friends in the blogosphere have wondered what surprises await us. We know she’s going to propose a pay raise for teachers, but we also know the state faces at least a $900 million revenue shortfall. Tyler Bridges has suggested that some of us take a crack at predicting some of the high points from the address, as it will relate to education.

Oh there are so many ways I could go with this. As I write this, the 2010 movie Alice in Wonderland is on TV as background noise. I considered going conceptually through the looking glass, so to speak, and getting all mimsy borogoves with this post, but I’m just not feeling very frumious at the moment.

I also thought of writing it from the perspective of wondering what theoretical Governor Joe Dorman’s 2nd inaugural address would sound like…

and we will build upon the gains we made last year, continuing to restore public education budgets until they exceed 2008 levels and we can pay our teachers regionally competitive salaries…

And maybe a bit of …

just as last year we removed the expense and wasted time of the End of Instruction exams, this year we are going to eliminate all state testing that isn’t federally mandated…

Theoretically, of course, I especially liked this part…

…vouchers, are you kidding me with this?

But alas, even though the majority of Oklahomans who send their children to public school also live in households below the threshold to qualify for free or reduced prices lunches, we continue to elect leaders – including a governor – who insist on cutting taxes that favor corporations and people with executive salaries. We vote very badly, and against our own interests in this state. It’s a phenomenon I’ll never completely understand.

Anyway, back to the challenge. I think the place for me to start is with a certain point of emphasis from Fallin’s 2014 SOTS address:

Just as it’s our responsibility to help maintain a motivated and skilled workforce in state government, it’s also our responsibility to maintain and preserve state buildings and assets.

In the case of the state Capitol, we are failing in that goal.

In fact, this building has become a safety hazard. We are doing a great disservice to our state and its citizens by allowing the Capitol to crumble around us.

The exterior is falling apart, to the point where we must actually worry about state employees and visitors – including teachers and students on field trips – being hit by falling pieces of the façade.

The yellow barriers outside are an eyesore and an embarrassment.

The electrical system is dangerously outdated.

And guys, the water stains you’ve seen on some of the walls downstairs? I have bad news for you. That’s not just water.

Raw sewage is literally leaking into our basement. On “good” days, our visitors and employees can only see the disrepair. On bad days, they can smell it.

We must begin repairing the People’s House now.

As the façade crumbles and the basement fills, we see the impact of decades of neglect – of the mentality that this problem can be fixed later. We can make many parallel statements about the condition of public education in Oklahoma.

I don’t pretend to know what the governor will say about education this year, but I think the parallel still exists. We mostly differ, though, on what causes things to stink so much.

I’m a school superintendent. I’m trying to find more than a million dollars in cuts for the current school year, and I can only guess how many millions I’ll have to cut for next year. We have outdated textbooks and technology. We have … well, I’ll let my friend Melonie Hau, the Duncan Public Schools superintendent, explain the pain that so many of us feel right now:

Hau said Duncan has managed to absorb cuts dating back at least to 2008 by reducing payroll through attrition and by making tough decisions to cut some jobs completely, like an assistant superintendent’s post and an assistant principal’s position, and to add to responsibilities of counselors and others.

The district also has cut some programs that were expensive and didn’t affect large numbers of students. Home economics is one, for example, that the district used to have but no longer does. Driver’s education, too, has veered off the list of curriculum choices offered to students.

Other expenses have been trimmed by putting off purchases of new textbooks, delaying purchases of technology and turning more to free sources of classroom materials offered through the Internet. Additionally, the district employs fewer people now than it did a few years ago to take care of day-to-day upkeep of school buildings or to fix things when they break.

We’re cutting what we can cut. I wouldn’t say that we’re cutting waste, though. Sometimes, I think educators are our own worst enemy. We absorb fiscal and policy abuse from the state and find ways to make things work. We still have school. Teachers fund their own classrooms. We try to make the impact on students and learning as small as possible.

We’re past that now. There’s nothing on the cutting table in my district that won’t impact student learning. Yes, we’ll still provide ACE Remediation and summer school to support the Reading Sufficiency Act. We’ll be cutting some of the support we have for those programs though because we have to find the money somewhere. Since the State Board of Education gave us that flexibility this week, we’re going to use what we can.

The article about Duncan Public Schools continues, and Hau makes a strong point:

The Duncan district’s share of state budget cuts last year amounted to about $1.2 million. Another $380,000 has been cut so far this school year and administrators across the state have been told to plan for another 3 percent cut before spring. Hau said the state’s budget mess will extend into next year as well. In Duncan, the share of anticipated cuts may amount to another $1 million.

Students and teachers have already been affected, she said, adding that it irritates her to hear people say that schools ought to be run more like businesses, where managers might reduce supply because of a decline in demand. Oklahomans shouldn’t be asked to “streamline” their children’s education.

The demand for public education isn’t declining. In fact, as state funding for public education continues to shrink, student enrollment continues to grow.

statewide-enrollment_crop

With this in mind, how can we possibly brace for additional cuts. I heard State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister say yesterday – as I heard her say a couple of weeks ago – that we just shouldn’t accept this.

I still haven’t really answered Tyler’s challenge. I haven’t predicted what the governor will say tomorrow. My best guess it will resemble what I read on the editorial page of the Oklahoman today. The writers cite legislative pushes for school consolidation, caps on administrative spending, and vouchers. Remember that Oklahoma not only ranks 49th in teacher pay; we also rank 49th in total spending for PK-12 education.

Not one of these proposals will change our state rank in either measure. Should we consider consolidation? Of course – everything has to be on the table. The potential for cost savings will be inflated, though. Reducing the number of superintendents without reducing the number of school sites really won’t save much money.

Some of these issues are distractions. Others, such as the voucher conversation, are just completely insulting. If our state leaders will do anything to avoid talking about how they’ve abdicated their responsibility to properly fund education, then we need new people.

I don’t know what the governor will say tomorrow. The truth is that it really doesn’t matter. Yes, I always tell people to use their words, but actions matter more. I care about what happens after the SOTS address. I care about funding and policy. I care about the 14,600 students in Mid-Del Schools. Moreso, as a father, I care about one student in particular in the Norman Public Schools.

Say anything. Just do something useful for the kids. As for me, when I visit the Capitol, I’ll make sure I still don’t touch the walls. I’ll try to avoid the Kool-Aid too.

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Two things: Finding things in plain sight

January 26, 2016 4 comments

Sunday night, State Senator Kyle Loveless made the media rounds suggesting a report card for school district expenditures.

As Fox 25 in Oklahoma City reported:

State Senator Kyle Loveless has a new goal, to create a transparent spending system throughout Oklahoma’s school system. He says the information is out there, but it’s hard to find and he wants to make it easy for parents and tax payers by creating a fiscal report card.

I don’t want to debate the merit of his plan right now. Honestly, it just sounds like a distraction from someone who doesn’t want to talk about the fact that the state of Oklahoma has made deeper cuts to K-12 education than any other state in the country. Instead, I’ll give you two places, where the aforementioned financial data hides in plain sight.

  1. If you want to find out all kinds of information about schools and school districts, just hop on over to the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA), formerly the Office of Accountability. Click on the county of the school district you want to research. Then click on the name of the district. Let’s use Mid-Del Public Schools as an example.MD EQA 1 MD EQA 2

    What you get is a two page report card with demographic, expenditure, and student achievement information. The downside is that some of the information is a little behind. Here we are in 2016, and the newest figures on here are from the 2013-14 school year. Still, you can get a general idea of how districts spend their money, if that’s a thing you want to know. Let me zoom in closer.
    MD EQA 3As you can see, during this school year, Mid-Del spent 54.6% of all expenditures on instruction and another 4.3% on instructional support. That’s a total of 58.9%. The state averages were 52.7% and 3.8%, totaling 56.5%.

    Mid-Del spent less than the state average (by percentage) on district administration, but more on site administration. Overall, the district spent about the average for the state. What does any of this mean? Whatever you as the person reading the information want it to mean. The point is that the information is there. It has been since 1997 – in plain sight.

  2. It hasn’t been around as long, and maybe it’s not as easy to find, but the Oklahoma State Department of Education has a site that breaks down expenditures into even greater detail. It is the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System (OCAS) site. Here you can pick a district and review their data. Let’s pick on mine again.MD OCAS 1 MD OCAS 2

    These reports are for the 2014-15 school year. You can click on the links and see details as minor as the fact that we spent $899.90 on overtime costs in Child Nutrition for the school year. You can even download everything into a massive spreadsheet.

    There are a number of different reports in PDF files as well. And if you want, you can even look at the data by school site. It’s all right there. It may not have one of those fancy pie charts that Loveless wants us to use; instead, it has all the information we could want to answer our questions. If you’re really curious, that should be what you’re looking for.


Regardless of where you find your information on how a district near you spends its money, there is one thing you need to remember. The main thing we do in schools – the reason we have schools in the first place – is for teaching and learning. Every penny we spend – whether it’s on teachers, textbooks, and technology, or it’s on utilities, buses, and lunches – supports instruction. Every superintendent worth a damn knows this. Every school patron has a right to know it. That’s why the information is already out there.

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A Plan to Plan to Plan

January 25, 2016 2 comments

This week, State Senator David Holt announced that teachers in Oklahoma deserve a $10,000 raise.

In related news, puppies are adorable.puppies

I don’t want to sound unappreciative. Of course teachers in Oklahoma deserve at least that much. It’s been a long time coming. The problem is, of course, that raises take money. And that money has to come from somewhere. This being Holt’s sixth year in the Legislature, I started to wonder what he’s been doing so far to lay the tracks for such an outstanding proposal. So I checked his official Senate bio:

Having introduced an income tax cut bill every session, David has also worked to advance the conversation about how tax cuts can grow Oklahoma’s economy. David has also been a leader in fighting for taxpayers to have more control over their tax dollars, including efforts to bring more transparency to the Legislature and to reform laws that place government unions over taxpayers. David has also fought for better public schools, having authored legislation to give parents the ability to turn around a failing school and to expand public school options for families in the inner cities of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. David has also been a leader in efforts to increase voter participation, in light of severely declining turnout in Oklahoma.

Not to sound like a downer here, but it’s hard to raise teacher salaries while cutting state revenue. No matter how much Holt and those like him want to pretend differently, a major portion of our current budget deficit is a direct result of tax cuts. Continuing to pursue them has neither stimulated the economy nor provided additional funding for all the things state government is supposed to support.

Holt also touts his own efforts to label schools as failures and turn them over to parents. He has a record as being a no excuses legislator when it comes to school performance. Meanwhile, I have a record as being a no excuses blogger and administrator when it comes to discussing the performance of our state leaders.

They’ve failed to fund public education properly for years. They’ve created a projected $900 million budget hole for next year (which will probably be worse). They want to blame OPEC. Too bad. We’re just judging you by your outcomes. And if we don’t like them, hopefully we’ll instigate our own takeover and hand the reins of budgeting and public policy over to people who we trust more.

I try to be hopeful, often in the face of every piece of evidence telling me not to be. Sometimes, though, you just can’t choose how to feel. Still, I have been following the press surrounding Holt’s proposal, including this interview with Oklahoma Watch. Here is how Nate Robson framed it:

A Republican senator said he had a “moral obligation” to propose a complicated, six-part plan to give Oklahoma teachers a $10,000 pay raise without a tax increase, despite the state facing a $900 million budget shortfall.

The $400 million proposal, released Thursday by Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, instead would seek funding from overhauling tax breaks, by consolidating the number of school districts and by diverting a portion of future budget growth to education.

I agree that this is a “moral obligation.” I also agree that it’s a complicated proposal. I just don’t agree that it’s a plan. Parts of it are a plan to plan. Others seem more like a plan to plan to plan. To explain further, we will need to look at each of the six pieces of legislation that Holt has proposed.

SJR 57: Constitutional amendment; requiring consideration of tax reform; prohibiting granting of tax credits under certain conditions.

The text of the measure basically reads as an ultimatum to end tax credits. It would also require the recovered revenue to go to teacher salaries.

This measure enacts a new Section 2.1 of Article 10 of the Oklahoma Constitution. It requires the Legislature to consider significant reform of tax credits, rebates, exemptions and deductions. If such significant reform is not enacted prior to January 1, 2018, no credit against any state tax shall be granted in calendar years 2018 and 2019. Significant reform would be determined to have been met if changes to the laws relating to tax credits, rebates, exemptions and deductions result in an increase of $200 million in the amount available for appropriation by the Legislature for fiscal year 2019, as compared to the amount for fiscal year 2017. The State Board of Equalization would make this determination. If significant tax reform was enacted, the Legislature would be required to appropriate at least $200 million in additional funds to be used to increase teacher salaries. This section would expire and be repealed on July 1, 2030.

The funny part about this is that the challenge to getting OU President David Boren’s  penny sales tax came from conservatives who claimed to be concerned against logrolling – the practice of creating a ballot question that contains more than one topic, as this one clearly does. It’s a good thing the state Supreme Court ruled that Boren’s plan is in fact constitutional. Otherwise, Holt’s proposal would have no chance.

The problem I see is that he wants the voters of the state to command future legislators to find the credits that can be reformed. He’s setting a deadline and saying find $200 million to cut, or nobody gets a tax credit. This would have to be completed by the end of the 2017 legislative session (or an ensuing special session) to go anywhere. Holt isn’t saying he has an idea where those reforms can be found; he’s just saying he’s certain they’re there and that we had better find them or else. It’s a plan to plan.

SB 1238: Teacher pay; providing for an increase in teacher compensation.

This is a classic if A and B, then C kind of proposition.

For the 2018-2019 school year, each full-time certified teacher shall receive a pay increase equivalent to a Five Thousand Dollar ($5,000.00) increase in the previous school year’s compensation, exclusive of any one-time stipend or overtime payments.

SECTION 2. The provisions of this act shall not become effective as law unless Enrolled Senate Joint Resolution No. 57 of the 2nd Session of the 55th Oklahoma Legislature becomes effective as law.

If voters approve Holt’s initial state question, and the Legislature finds $200 million to cut in tax credits, then all teachers get a $5,000 raise.

In this scenario, A is a longshot. And B – picture nearly 150 legislators trying to hash out which credits get cut – is a longer shot. First, they’d have to navigate through all the lobbyists swarming the Capitol. If those two things happen, surely nothing can get in the way of teachers getting raises, right?

Not even the current $900 million shortfall we’re facing?

We’re simply moving money from pile to pile. Maybe a better way to say it is that we’re simply moving deficits around to appear flush.

Shell Game

Before we start promising future allocations to be appropriated off-the-top (a practice about which I heard several legislators moaning last Wednesday), first we have to figure out how to pay our current bills. If the state has any chance at not cutting education funding further this year, the Legislature will have to reform tax credits now.

SB 1256: Teacher compensation; creating the Securing Teacher Compensation Fund; providing for apportionment of revenue.  

This bill creates a new fund of off-the-top revenue to be distributed exclusively for teacher raises. It’s called the Securing Teacher Compensation Fund. It counts on future revenue growth, of which the first $200 million would be exclusively and permanently be reserved for increasing teacher salaries.

That sounds great, except for a few problems. One is that student enrollment is increasing. We are going to need more teachers. Another is that our support employees work 40 hour weeks, in many cases year-round, and make way less than our teachers. We’ve shifted the cost of textbooks and technology to our bond funds (those of us with any bonding capacity). We’ve moved utilities and maintenance into the building fund. And we still can’t afford to properly staff our buildings.

Our budgets are being held together by threads, and teacher salaries are just one of the problems. It’s a huge one; these are the people who spend every day with our students. It’s the problem we need to address first. If Holt’s proposal were to come to full fruition, though, we’d just be getting started.

SB 1278: Teacher pay; directing the State Board of Education to implement certain salary increases upon certain apportionment.

This is where Holt takes that magical $200 million and turns it into $5,000 raises again. If he passes all these bills, he can say he supported public education, even if we don’t see a penny.

Sidebar: I will give Holt credit for one thing. There’s zero chance these bills have the ALEC or OCPA seals of approval.

Another problem with this pair of bills is that we have to see growth in state revenue – as we continue to cut taxes. Remember, Holt will keep authoring bills to cut taxes. He believes it’s the right thing to do. I respect that. It’s just no way to fund the raises he promises on the backs of unicorns and rainbows.

Maybe that’s too harsh. Here’s how Holt’s press release describes SB 1278’s hopes and dreams:

We know that the economy will improve sometime in the future, and we know that state tax revenues will rise as well. Rather than an oral commitment, this makes it lawfully required that future revenue growth goes first to teacher pay raises. The current shortfall actually presents an opportunity to do something we might have otherwise found impossible. Two years ago, if you had suggested that the state find $200 million in existing spending and redirect it to teacher pay raises, it wouldn’t have happened because no one wants to rob Peter to pay Paul. But this year, we have no choice but to take money from Peter because we don’t have it. So, the hard part will already be accomplished. When revenue growth returns, it will no longer be spoken for. Let’s turn today’s pain into a future opportunity to increase teacher pay.

It’s a Doerflinger-esque statement. We have an opportunity. Someday my prince will come. Or something like that. The economy can’t suck forever, and when it finally recovers from what we’ve done to it OPEC, all the growth will go to public education. We mean it this time.

SJR 58: Constitutional amendment; creating the School Modernization and Renew Teaching Commission

Now we’re going to compound the good deeds we’re doing by consolidating school districts:

This measure adds a new section of law to the State Constitution. It adds Section 9 to Article 13. It creates a commission to propose a new school district map that would contain only 200 school districts. It provides for appointments to the commission. It requires the commission to submit its proposal to the Legislature by a certain date. It establishes requirements that the proposal must meet. It provides a process for how the proposal is to be considered by both branches of the Legislature. It provides for consideration of the proposal by the Governor. It states that this section of the Constitution shall expire on a certain date.

There’s this pervasive myth that we’re burning money by having so many school districts in Oklahoma. Each one needs management. What we fail to discuss too often is that many of our small, rural districts function with one administrator only.

Holt wants a state question that will force consolidation to an arbitrarily chosen number of school districts – 200. I don’t know how he arrived at that number. In fact, nobody knows how he arrived at most of the details in his bills. As he states in his interview with Oklahoma Watch:

I didn’t need to talk to education folks because there is no education policy in here. This needed expertise in politics, which I have.

I didn’t think it was imperative to work with a bunch of people because this is a complicated plan. I didn’t want people saying it couldn’t be done or saying we should wait to do this later. Instead, I wanted to unveil a plan now and see if anyone else can come up with something better.

Leadership is not waiting to have a consensus. Good leadership is coming up with a bold plan and then seeing if you can come to a consensus.

Actually, that’s the opposite of good leadership, Senator Holt. Consensus is something that involves the opinions of people who do the work. You want to close school districts, but you don’t think your ideas have anything to do with education policy? You’re wrong. Simply wrong.

I know you say schools won’t close – just districts. What you fail to realize is that you really can’t save money without closing them. You’re being bold and pandering to your metropolitan voters, casting the problem of school funding as an effect of having too many rural districts. What you’re not doing is putting yourself into a position in which you’ll have to make the decisions about which districts close.

Look, I’m a product of large, suburban schools. Until 2002, that was all I had known, as a student or a professional. Then I spent two years in Medford as a secondary principal. What you’re proposing would save little while costing communities more than you can understand.

SJR 59: Constitutional amendment; requiring State Treasurer to certify certain savings amount; providing for use

This is a third state question (for a guy who frequently calls for a state constitutional convention to sort out how convoluted it is, he sure proposes a lot of constitutional amendments) that would shift all savings from consolidation into more teacher raises.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument that we consolidate to exactly 200 districts and 300 superintendents lose their jobs. At best, that saves about $30 million. At best. Again, some of these superintendents are also building principals and teach classes. In many small, rural districts, the superintendent does much more than run the district.

I know $30 million sounds like a lot. In the grand scheme of the state budget, though, it’s not. That’s not even another $1,000 to teachers, or to other costs.

The fact is that what Oklahoma spends per pupil is well below the regional and national average. It’s a numerator and denominator thing. If the amount we spend doesn’t change, and the number of students doesn’t change, then per pupil spending doesn’t change.


 

Overall, Holt’s proposal is built on wishes. I categorically reject the last two bills because I don’t think school district consolidation is the financial windfall some want it to be. At best, it’s a political distraction pitting city folk against country folk. When our state leaders are unwilling to roll back a .25% tax cut that costs the General Revenue Fund between $120 and $140 million this year, consolidation should be political non-starter.

The two bills in the middle are tied to future revenue growth. I’d love to think it could happen, but it’s not something on which to build a plan. Again, if we keep cutting taxes, the chances for revenue growth just grow slimmer and slimmer.

As for the first two bills, I say why wait? Reform tax credits and off-the-top spending in 2016. What’s the problem with that? Courage is what you do now, not what you plan to plan to do in the future. Someone who would seem to agree is state Representative Jason Dunnington.

Dunnington1   Dunnington2

As Dunnington wrote on Facebook last night:

Many folks in HD88 and members of the education community have asked my opinion of recent proposals to raise teachers salaries without raising taxes. First, let me say I am thankful that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are beginning to see what the business community and Democrats have been saying for years. Without a renewed investment in Oklahoma education we will not produce the quality workforce needed for growth and prosperity.

To be blunt, when Republicans have 71 of 101 votes in the House of Representatives, 39 of 48 in the State Senate, and every state wide elected office, if you want to raise teacher pay then raise it. With a supermajority Republicans have all the votes needed to do it now. To propose future raises based off finding new efficiencies in government, or repealing available tax credits, deductions, rebates or exemptions would make sense if we didn’t need those to cover our current billion dollar shortfall. The fact is, Oklahoma doesn’t have enough revenue to cover our existing obligations let alone increase investment in our most basic functions of government. If raising teacher salaries is really a priority, even a moral obligation, then new revenue must be a part of the conversation or recent proposals will be nothing more than lip service.

I don’t know if Dunnington’s comments are a direct response to Holt’s proposal, but I’ll treat them as such. The Republicans control the entire Legislature. They have every statewide office. If they think they can cut taxes, reform tax credits, and raise teacher salaries, they should do it right now. It’s an election year, after all. It’s an opportunity!

The truth is that there is no silver bullet to fixing the state economy, the revenue streams that fund public services, or the problems resulting from a systematic de-funding of public schools over the last eight years. If school consolidation were that plan, I’d bite my teeth and support it. It’s not.

I appreciate that Holt at least had an idea – a complicated idea – and put it forward. Maybe some of this will happen, someday. I have more than 1,000 teachers working for me, though, and they’re tired of waiting for someday.

What can you do for us now, when you hold all the cards? That’s the question. Quit planning. Start doing.

Two Things: Perspectives on 0.25%

January 19, 2016 Comments off

1. As the Tulsa World reports this morning, voices of reason are starting to emerge in Oklahoma’s Legislature:

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Mazzei said Monday that Oklahoma’s “financial management options” should include suspension of the 0.25 percent reduction in the state income-tax rate that went into effect Jan. 1.

“Given the financial stress the state faces, we should consider a number of financial management options, one of which is a delay in the reduction from 5.25 to 5 percent in the top tax rate,” said Mazzei, R-Tulsa.

Mazzei last week filed Senate Bill 1073, which voids the reduction approved by the state Equalization Board in December 2014 and specifies such a reduction cannot occur in a fiscal year in which a revenue failure has been declared.

SB 1073 also raises the requirements for triggering a rate cut from 5 percent to 4.85 percent.

As those of us who agree with Mazzei keep saying, the tax cut is irresponsible at this time. I’ve heard personally from other legislators who get it.

2. Why wouldn’t you fix part of your problem while you can? Maybe because the Oklahoman says so:

Critics argue the money left in citizens’ hands through tax cuts would be better spent on government. They say increased funding for things such as schools, roads and social services makes a state more attractive to businesses than a low tax rate.

If so, Connecticut should be booming. Instead, since 2010 Connecticut has experienced almost no growth in state gross domestic product.

No doubt, some proponents of higher tax rates will note GE is relocating to Boston. So the company is exiting one high-tax state for another nationally lampooned as “Taxachusetts.” Yet the Tax Foundation ranks Massachusetts’ business climate 25th best in the nation, while Connecticut’s was 44th. In comparison, Oklahoma ranked 33rd.

Clearly, if it’s good for big business, it’s good for the state, right? Just ask all those homeowners in Edmond who are dealing with cracks in their walls. Or maybe ask the drinking water aficionados from Flint, Michigan.

It serves the Oklahoman‘s narrative, though, to frame this as the left wanting to hijack your hard-earned income. Like a Geico commercial, that’s what they do.

I actually agree with the closing paragraph of the editorial, though:

No one should argue that tax rates are the only factor in business location decisions. But it’s a fool’s errand to pretend they’re irrelevant.

It’s true. They also consider the quality of the schools. Schools cost money. That requires some taxation. You can’t have it both ways.

Happy Tuesday, everybody.

Appreciating Lost Talent

January 18, 2016 Comments off

The Eagles were my first favorite band. It wasn’t my choice. Well, maybe it was just a little. I remember that when I was eight years old, my brother and I had two records: the greatest hits compilations of the Eagles and the Steve Miller Band.

steve miller gheagles gh cover

First of all, the Eagles cover was much cooler. Although the horse’s head on the Steve Miller Band cover appears to be flaming, the eagle head appears as if it’s going to hunt you down and eat you, even if you’re on a getaway horse that appears to be on fire.

The Eagles album had better songs too. Don’t get me wrong; I love Jet Airliner and The Joker, but the best song on the album may have been Fly Like an Eagle. That’s right: an Eagle. It all comes full circle.

I’ll even admit to having seen the Steve Miller Band in concert three times. I only saw the Eagles once. All were great shows (but not Tom Petty or U2 good). The Eagles broke up when I was 12 and reunited when I was 24. I just didn’t have as many opportunities.

As a kid of single-digit age, I didn’t have much say in my likes and dislikes. By the time I was in middle school the band may not have been a thing anymore, but I wore out two copies of their live double album tape.

I now own it on CD and have it loaded on my iPhone. It still has its days as my only playlist as I make the rounds.

That said, the Eagles didn’t remain my favorite band. I bought and enjoyed the solo work of the the band members, especially Joe Walsh. I went through phases with other bands being my favorite: Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and – I’m a little embarrassed to admit this – Styx. Don’t judge me. I was 12.

By the time I was in high school, however, I owned every Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record. That was my group. That was the singer and music that spoke to me. I still loved the Eagles and so many other artists. I was learning about Motown and early rappers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And I had yet to really go back and explore the greats from before my time, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

But the Eagles, and that first greatest hits album, will always be the first set of songs I knew by heart.

If you’ve followed my blog any amount of time at all, you know I love music. You know I love all kinds of it and for so many reasons. Mostly, you know that words matter to me.

My favorite Eagles song of all time, and one of my 10 favorite songs ever, was Saturday Night. It’s not popular on the scale of Hotel California or Desperado. It just has a phrase I’ve always loved.

What a tangled web we weave
Go ’round with circumstance
Someone show me how to tell the dancer
From the dance

It’s one of their early songs, and it didn’t make it onto the album cover with the deranged eagle skull, but it’s definitely my favorite 70s soft rock song featuring a mandolin solo.

From the Eagles, and later from Don Henley, and eventually from every other song I loved (not counting Safety Dance), I learned to appreciate words. My favorite songs may be ones to which I can headbang while driving; more likely, though, is that they have words that do something for me. Santa Monica by Everclear. Invisible Sun by the Police. Pretty much everything Stevie Wonder has written. Great music, but more profound language.

Tonight, when I learned that Glenn Frey, one of the founders of the Eagles, had died, I felt a significant sense of loss. I don’t usually react much to celebrity deaths. It’s not like I knew them. It’s not like I won’t have access to their words and works. In the last week, however, we’ve lost David Bowie, Alan Rickman (not a musician, but a brilliant actor and huge to my kids as Professor Snape).

Tonight, after I heard the news, I started posting Eagles songs on Facebook. I found that most of my favorites were actually Glenn Frey or Randy Meisner songs. Still, Glenn Frey was there, and he had a phenomenal mustache.glenn frey

Music stays with you. I don’t know how you would survives without having it feed your soul. To quote Stevie Wonder:

Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it

The Eagles were my first favorite band. I can still name most of their songs in one note. I still have that first album I owned hanging on my wall at home, along with several of my other favorites. photo

I know this is supposed to be an education blog, and that this is one of those posts that will get dozens of page views instead of thousands. I don’t care. I write what matters to me.

Honestly, the Eagles probably have nothing to do with why I am an educator. They may have something to do with why I write like my brain is on fire, though.

Rest in Peace, Glenn Frey. And thanks for the tunes.

 

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On Coyotes and Road Runners

January 16, 2016 2 comments

Pardon me for reminiscing, but when I was young, Saturday mornings were full of cartoons to warp my mind and curve my spine. I couldn’t get enough of Scooby Doo or the Superfriends.

Superfriends.png

I watched hours of the Jetsons and the Pink Panther. Hong Kong Phooey was another favorite of mine, especially after I was older and realized that his character was voiced by Scatman Crothers, the caretaker from The Shining.

My favorite part of Saturday mornings, however, was the hour of Looney Tunes reruns. Schedules changed from year to year. I seem to remember at one point, it was even a 90 minute block. Talk about feeding my indolence and pursuing it passively!

I even loved the opening. It was a catchy song – maybe my first experience with an earworm.

Overture, curtain lights

This is it, the night of nights

No more rehearsing and nursing a part

We know every part by heart…

Later, when I was in my 20s, I learned that Jerry Seinfeld would launch into the opening theme song at the mere mention of the word Overture.

As with Seinfeld, all my knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

A great cartoon is one that entertains children and has humor that adults are more likely to appreciate. It’s good clean fun, until somebody gets hurt.

That brings me to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Apparently, animation director Chuck Jones had nine written rules for their episodes.

road runner rules.jpg

After seeing these circulate on Facebook last night, I saw something familiar. Is this a metaphor for the state budgeting process? If so, who is the Road Runner, and who is the Coyote? Let’s look at the rules and decide.

Rule 1: The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going, “beep-beep!”

Not that #oklaed is the only stakeholder impacted by those who develop the budget, but let’s just say in the last few years, we’ve been saying a lot of “beep-beep!” Occasionally, it even progresses to “bleep-bleep!” If we accept that the Coyote represents certain legislators (and perhaps a former state superintendent), I guess we’ve actually done some harm.

Rule 2: No outside force can harm the Coyote – only his own ineptitude or the failure of the ACME products.

If we accept the metaphor, and we accept that the Coyote is inept, what we’re saying is that those who’ve made our budget were perhaps certain their plans would work. They believed that if they cut taxes enough, state revenue would continue increasing.

By the way, income tax cuts seem to be about as effective as a slew of ACME products.

As the Oklahoma Policy Institute shows, our leaders have meticulously cut state revenue to this point. While the price of a barrel of oil is less than half what we would consider healthy for our state’s economy, that is not the only reason we have a massive budget hole to fill.

Beginning with the Great Recession that reached Oklahoma in 2009, the state has experienced a continuing budget crisis. Even after the economy recovered from a severe national recession, Oklahoma’s funding for core services remains well below pre-recession levels. Many state agencies still operate with one-quarter to one-third less state support compared to fiscal year 2009. Overall, this year’s state appropriated budget is $896 million, or 11.4 percent, below that of 2009 once adjusted for inflation.

This is why we keep saying that the budget hole was both predictable and preventable.

Rule 3: The Coyote could stop anytime – if he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” – George Santayana)

Who knew that the foundation of the conflict between these two was rooted so deeply in early 20th century philosophy?! Sadly, those of us who have been paying attention for years know this all too well. Follow me here for a minute and rest assured, you won’t be tested over dates.

  • 1990 – The Oklahoma Legislature, spearheaded by Republican Governor Henry Bellmon, enacts House Bill 1017, a landmark education reform measure that increases and protects funding for public education.
  • 1991 – Oklahoma voters defeated State Question 639 which would have repealed HB 1017.
  • 1992 – Oklahoma voters passed State Question 640, which established limits for how tax increases could be enacted.

Under SQ 640, a revenue bill can only become law if: (1) it is approved by a 3/4th vote of both legislative chambers and is signed by the Governor; or (2) it is referred by the legislature to a vote of the people at the next general election and receives majority approval.

Since passage of SQ 640 in 1992, Oklahoma voters have approved only one state question to raise taxes: SQ 713, which increased the tobacco tax in 2004. SQ 723, which would have increased motor vehicle fuel taxes, was defeated in 2005.

This is truly the era of origin for the problem at hand now. Properly funding public education and other basic functions of government is expensive. When education supporters get loud and have an impact, forces that oppose us rise up and convince voters that all tax cuts are a good thing.

Because of SQ 640, the Oklahoma Legislature couldn’t raise taxes if they wanted to. They wouldn’t get 75% support in both houses. They wouldn’t get a signature from the governor. Just this week, we’ve heard the governor and her staff double down on the idea that the most recent tax cuts are a good thing – in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Rule 4: No dialogue ever, except “beep-beep!”

They say nothing of consequence. In response, #oklaed and other people who use facts respond in the only way we know how. It’s not exactly dialogue.

Rule 5: The Road Runner must stay on the road – otherwise, logically, he would not be called Road Runner.

For all the crippling cuts and horrible policy decisions that have impacted public schools in recent years, we’ve done our jobs. We’ve stayed on the road. Occasionally, we stop and let out a “beep-beep!” but we are busy doing what we need to do for our students. Drop an anvil, and we’ll keep moving. Paint a picture of a road on the side of a desert rock, and we’ll turn it into a freaking road.

tunnel road.gif

And then the Coyote will crash into it. It’s what Coyotes do.

Rule 6: All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters – the Southwest American desert.

For our purposes, the natural environment of the Coyote is closed-door boardrooms with billionaires. For the Road Runner, it’s thrift sales and fundraisers.

Rule 7: All materials, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the ACME Corporation.

Our state’s budget is definitely driven by corporations. That’s how SQ 766 passed, costing communities millions that would have stood to benefit schools and municipal services.

Another interpretation of the metaphor here is that the ACME Corporation stands for the state purchasing contract. That also explains why our computers don’t always work as they should.

Rule 8: Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.

This explains adherents to trickle-down economics.

They like to pretend it’s helping, but in the end, they just look foolish.

Rule 9:

ncis_gibbs_rule_9_baby_hat.jpg

Wait, that’s from a different list.

Rule 9: The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

Oh, how I wish this part were true. I don’t know that our leaders who make the budget are harmed by their failures. Instead, they’re defensive. Some legislators are even sending constituents surveys such as this one from House District 53.

District 53.jpg

I don’t believe the representative here wants true input. For the first question, there’s a third choice: stop cutting taxes when we already have a revenue failure. Question seven creates  a great straw man. However, I would expect someone as seasoned as Rep. McBride to know that the law already places limits on administrative expenditures.  Question eight is a voucher question. Question ten is another false choice.

When you receive something like this, keep in mind your opinion doesn’t matter. The Coyote already has his mind made up. He’s going to do whatever the ACME Corporation tells him to do.

At this point, unfortunately, we know every part by heart.

 

Two Things: Enrollment Increases and #GiveItBackOK

January 12, 2016 1 comment

Quickly today, I want to draw your attention to two things.

First is that public school enrollment continues to climb. Superintendent Hofmeister’s office released this statement yesterday:

The number of students enrolled in Oklahoma public schools increased by more than 4,000 in 2015, continuing an annual upward trend.

A total of 692,670 students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade at the start of the school year, an increase of 4,370 over the 2014 total of 688,300 and 33,055 more than in 2010.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister emphasized that the state should be prepared to continue serving a growing student population each year.

“Once again, Oklahoma schools are educating more students than ever,” Hofmeister said. “While it’s not a surprise, it is important to remember that statewide enrollment increases every year. Given the current fiscal reality and the teacher shortage crisis, many schools started 2015 ready to add additional students to their rosters with few new resources. We need to plan for this trend to continue in the future and do everything we can to minimize the negative impact on students.”

Districts record enrollment every year on Oct. 1 and report the figures to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Currently, Oklahoma has 516 public school districts and 1,795 school sites, including 14 charter schools not sponsored by a district.

Well, that’s about half of the statement. The release also included several graphics, including this one showing how public school enrollment has continued to increase since 2009.

statewide-enrollment_crop.jpg

Please remember that Oklahoma schools have more mandates, more students and less per-pupil funding than they did in 2009. Don’t let anyone get away with telling you differently.

Also, if you’re any kind of a data nerd at all, you might enjoy the data tables the SDE has provided showing state, district, and site numbers.

The second thing is that I want to say thank you for the thousands of positive responses to #GiveItBackOK, which a small group of rebels – including myself – concocted Saturday night. I also appreciate the coverage that several local TV stations have given the movement, as well as Nour Habib’s write-up for the Tulsa World.

Sand Springs Assistant Superintendent Rob Miller and several other state education advocates, including Mid-Del Superintendent Rick Cobb, launched a grass-roots campaign on social media last weekend encouraging people to give back the money they’d get through a new 0.25 percent reduction in Oklahoma’s income-tax rate.

Miller said the idea for the campaign, which they’re calling #GiveItBackOK, came about spontaneously as he and others expressed their frustration about the fiscal shortfall and the midyear cuts that schools will have to deal with.

“All the while, the Legislature has moved forward with an income tax reduction at a time when the state doesn’t have enough money to support its core services,” he said.

Miller said the tax cut will result in a minimal return of money for most people — for an average teacher, it’ll be a return of about 4 cents a day, he said.

We’re not asking people who can’t afford to donate to schools to give. We’re not asking people to give their entire tax return to schools. We’re not even saying you need to write a check to your district’s general fund. There are countless ways you can give.

I say countless ways, but Claudia Swisher has started a list.

  • Donate to the school district lunch program. In trying to alleviate cuts to schools, the OSDE cut our state’s matching funding for the school lunch program by 30.28%. Check with your district office and see if you can earmark your donation to hungry kids.

  • Donate to your school’s general fund…that’s what schools use to buy paper, pencils, supplies, printer ink. Those funds will take a huge hit in order to continue funding vital services.

  • Ask your child’s teacher for a wish list of supplies and buy all of them and more

  • Ask the music and art teachers if they could use some help. My granddaughter’s art program funds itself by selling candy bars between classes…and that was before the revenue failure.

  • Join your PTA or PTO and donate to their efforts.

  • Does your district have a school foundation? Donate!

  • School libraries have been hurting for years, and this will be hard on them. Donate to the library and invite the media specialist to get the books students have been asking for.

 

Giving feels good, and it can help teachers know that you support them. It doesn’t begin to solve the state’s funding problem, though. Then again, step one is admitting you have a problem.

Late yesterday, after this movement began gaining traction, the governor’s office released a statement about criticism over the latest tax cut.

Most of the state’s revenue decline can be attributed to the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry and the 70 percent decline in the price of oil in the past 18 months. We’ve lost about 12,000 jobs from the energy sector decline, and that has an effect upon our sales tax, our income tax, our use tax, our motor vehicle tax and certainly the gross production tax on oil and gas. Modest, incremental income tax reductions are not the problem.

“The income tax cut’s budgetary impact is $120 million in the upcoming 2017 fiscal year, which is only a little more than 10 percent of the projected budget hole. It’s a fact, the state would still have over an $800 million budget hole even if that tax cut hadn’t taken effect.

“Up until the energy downturn, Oklahoma had the fourth-fasted growing economy in the nation. This tax cut will prove its worth in the long term. Tax policy is long-term policy and over the long term, a lower tax burden is good policy and the policy the voters have asked for in Oklahoma. If Oklahoma wants to attract and retain good jobs – rather than losing them to neighboring states – we must improve our tax climate.

Not all elected officials are all in on the tax cut, however. So far, two legislators have pledged to participate in the #GiveItBackOK movement.

Supporting schools, for most Oklahomans is an easy choice to make.

Oh, and if there would be a third, very location-specific thing this morning for all of the Owassoans who are registered voters, please do your civic duty. Vote today. They don’t call these special elections for nothing, you know.

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