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Challenge Accepted: State of the State Preview

January 31, 2016

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.


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.

  1. CJ
    January 31, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    Might not be the best move to make however at this point what do we have to lose? If EVERY SINGLE person who is in education would TOGETHER stand up and say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH maybe someone would get a clue and bite!
    Yep – the mighty ones are looking down from their leather chairs — sitting pretty not worrying about their pensions or their pay or their jobs! However they do see ALL OF US taking what they say and making it work!!
    We, as in teachers, principals, asst principals, cafeteria staff, custodial staff, secretaries, …and definitely our superintendents have to stop making it work!
    ALL Superintendents across the state I’m putting you on the front lines then the rest of us right behind you – walking together showing it is not working anymore.
    NO! NOT RIGHT! but what has happened to OUR EDUCATION IS NOT RIGHT EITHER!
    The way I look at it – if we don’t do something they won’t either!
    I truly don’t see any other way to get this moving OUT of the wrong and back into the RIGHT direction.


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