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Bring on 2017!

December 31, 2016 1 comment

Year end recaps are usually trite and self-serving, so why should mine be any different? I won’t belabor the huge loss of talent that we’ve seen this year. Sure, we’ve seen the passing of Prince, Alan Rickman, John Glenn, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Sharon Jones, David Bowie, and even the guy who played Schneider on One Day at a Time. We even had three major celebrity losses (George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds) in the last week!

That’s not the talent I mean. Besides, CNN says we need to get over ourselves because it’s not even the worst year in recent memory for celebrity deaths. They have numbers and everything.

I’m talking about the ongoing talent loss in public education. Year after year, we continue to teach more students with fewer teachers. Of the teachers we have, more and more of them have entered the profession through the emergency certification route.

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Five years ago, Oklahoma granted a grand total of 32 emergency certificates. Halfway through the current school year, we already have 1,082. Teachers are leaving the profession because they see a better pathway for supporting their families somewhere else. Worse yet, we don’t have very many college students picking the profession to begin with.

We continue to have budget problems. Our Legislature had to fix a $610 million budget hole in Fiscal Year 2016 (2015-16). They had a $1.3 BILLION shortfall in FY 17. As they set to work on the FY 18 budget, they will begin with an $870 million deficit.

Knowing that any prospect of significant teacher raises died November 8th with the defeat of SQ 779, teachers who have options will spend the spring looking elsewhere for opportunities. Some will look to other careers. Some will look to other states.

The exodus isn’t beginning because of the election. It’s continuing. It may even be accelerating. Even Texas newspapers are noticing. The Dallas Morning News piggybacked on a Tulsa World article in August about one such move: LeAnna Snyder moving from Tulsa to Grand Prairie for a $20,000 raise. She cited the fact that her own children are about to enter college and she just had to do more for them. It’s more than the money, though:

“Yes, I’m getting a raise of almost $20,000 — and that’s a big help to my family, especially with two kids about to be in college. But it’s not just salary,” said Snyder. “It’s retirement, it’s class size, it’s supplies. It’s about kindness and respect. When you walk into that building in Texas, it’s clean, it’s not old, it’s sharp-looking. It felt safe.”

It’s not just Texas, either. Snyder could have crossed the Kansas or Arkansas borders for raises as well.

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Tulsa World

In fact, all the states that border Oklahoma have higher average salaries than we do.

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Tulsa World

We still have legislators and policy groups who dispute those figures. We even have teachers who do. Remember that when you see an average teacher’s salary figure, though, that you’re looking at salary, insurance, and retirement – not just taxable income. Also remember that those are the same numbers used for other states.

State support for public education has been trending downward for a long time. According to data from the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA), from FY 2000 to FY 2015, the state share of school funding dropped from 57.3% to 47.7%.

Fiscal Year Local Share State Share Federal Share
2015 40.8% 47.7% 11.6%
2010* 36.1% 46.5% 17.4%
2005 34.1% 52.2% 13.8%
2000 32.8% 57.3% 10.0%

*In 2010, federal stimulus funds supplemented state aid.

Another way to look at this is to place state funding for education side-by-side with public school enrollment growth, as KOSU has done. For FY 08, the Legislature appropriated $2.53 billion for common education. The amount dropped the next three years and then increased the following three years before dropping again this year.

enrollmentvsstatefunding__1__1 KOSU.png

KOSU

As it stands, funding is $100 million lower than it was eight years ago, but enrollment is nearly 50,000 students higher. It’s also worth mentioning that 2016 dollars have less buying power than 2008 dollars. Fortunately, the Oklahoma Policy Institute has calculated the extent of Oklahoma’s per pupil cuts, adjusting for inflation.

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Per pupil state funding in Oklahoma is down nearly a quarter since 2008. That’s the worst figure in the country. Sure, we’ve seen a downturn in energy sector of our economy, but it hasn’t hit all the states that produce oil and gas as hard as it has hit us.

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North Dakota is another oil producing state, and they lead the nation in per pupil funding increases. They’re even adding to their equivalent of our Rainy Day Fund as we have all but shaken the last coin from our piggy bank. I don’t want to model everything we do after North Dakota – they’ve had a pretty rough time the last few months with DAPL, you know – I just want to live in a state with sound fiscal planning. And I don’t want to move.

Part of our state’s problem is that we give too many tax breaks without getting anything in return. The 2016 version of the Legislature fought this travesty head on – by eliminating the Oklahoma Earned Income Credit. This was, in essence, a tax increase on the state’s poorest citizens. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same politicians used that reasoning for opposing the penny sales tax.

For more than a decade, we’ve seen declining tax revenues in Oklahoma. Some of this is due to policy decisions; some is due to oil prices. Due to cuts to income taxes alone, the state has lost over $1 billion in revenue since 2008. I know, you want to keep more of what you earn. So do I. We’re not the ones benefitting from these tax cuts, however.

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If you’re making what an average school teacher in Oklahoma makes, your cut was about $29. Actually, it was less. Your taxable income is less than the $47,500 listed in that table.

Pretty much every state agency has seen funding cuts during the current cycle of budget woes. Meanwhile, working Oklahomans haven’t seen game changing tax breaks.

Oil companies have, though. We continue giving tax breaks all over the place to them, though.

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International Business Times

Similar to what we’ve done in Oklahoma, North Dakota has reduced property and income tax rates. They’ve continued to tax drilling, though.

Apparently, we’re going to dig out of this hole by taxing haircuts, tattoos, and cigarettes. Twice, in fact, since the end of the legislative session in May, I’ve met with Republican legislators who blame Democrats for not supporting a cigarette tax proposal that they think would have raised $150 million annually. I reminded both that Republicans have veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, and that they also hold the governor’s mansion.

After November 8th, Republicans now hold even wider margins in both chambers of the Legislature. They have a 75-26 advantage in the House and a 42-6 gap in the Senate. Republican unity would seem to be a bigger issue than courting Democrats to their side. Hopefully, many of the newly elected legislators will be as education friendly as they’ve sounded.

Of course, we also have distractions. Days before the election, the state superintendent was indicted for alleged violations of state campaign laws. Interestingly, the charges were filed at the end of absentee ballot voting and at the beginning of early voting. Do I think that made a difference?

  Absentee Early Voting Election Day Total
Yes 52,989 63,895 466,545 583,429
No 46,147 86,400 721,026 853,573

Yeah, I think it made a difference. Before the indictment, Yes on 779 had a slim margin. After the indictment, it was No in a landslide. Are the charges against Superintendent Hofmeister valid? I’m not a lawyer or a judge. Out of thousands of pages of evidence that were reviewed, we’ve only seen a 32 page complaint by the district attorney’s office. We haven’t seen or heard defense arguments yet. A lot can happen between here and there. The timing (on allegations that were 17 months old) definitely stung, though.

We also have the distraction of what appears to be a hush hush settlement orchestrated by the former Speaker of the House. In case you’ve missed the drama over the last couple of weeks, I’ll let the Oklahoman sum it up for you:

A fired legislative assistant and her attorneys were secretly paid $44,500 in state funds in November to settle her sexual harassment complaint against a state representative from Tulsa, records show.

Hollie Anne Bishop, 28, complained Rep. Dan Kirby, 58, began sexually harassing her shortly after she started working for him in January 2015. She complained she was fired without explanation on Nov. 20, 2015, in retaliation for reporting the harassment.

She accepted a $28,414.20 payment, online records show. Her Edmond attorneys accepted a $16,085.80 payment.

The payments appear to have come from taxpayer funds meant to operate the state House of Representatives. The payments were made Nov. 22 after Kirby, a Republican, won re-election, the records show.

Keep in mind that while education and every other function of state government saw a cut in funding, the Legislature increased its own operational budget by 183% for FY 17. Surely this isn’t why, is it?

It’s also worth noting that Kirby won his re-election on November 8th –two weeks before the settlement was paid. Is that timing also fishy? Of course it is.

Since the revelation of this settlement before Christmas, Kirby has resigned, we have learned that outgoing Speaker Jeff Hickman was instrumental in lining up the settlement, Kirby has rescinded his resignation, and that new Speaker Charles McCall wants to investigate the whole thing.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Scott Pruitt is headed to the Trump administration, the incoming Secretary of Education does not appear to have ever set foot in a public school, and – oh yeah! – we still have nearly a billion dollar hole to fill.

I don’t envy the task our legislators have. Some who are well-meaning engage with public education advocates on social media quite effectively. Others shut down quickly and lament that they are tired of hearing us complain without offering any solutions. I have two things to say to that:

  1. You ran for office. Aren’t you supposed to have some ideas?
  2. We’ve been giving you our ideas for the last several years now. Do we need to list them again?

In the past few years, the Legislature has listened to us on non-revenue issues. They added parents to the third-grade reading committee. They authorized changes to A-F Report Cards. They passed new academic standards. They eliminated End of Instruction tests and simplified teacher evaluations too. Year after year, they’ve even turned back voucher bills.

I know that most of our legislators listen to us. We just can’t seem to get anywhere with funding.

In spite of all of this, I’m going to remain hopeful.

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We have 700,000 public education students to teach in this state. More than 14,000 of those are in my district alone. I even still have one in my household. Public education continues to be a bargain for taxpayers and a building block for citizenship. In spite of the challenges – both for funding and respect – I see great things every day in our schools. Even the teachers who are looking for an exit come to work and try to make an impact every day.

We have new and returning legislators who need to continue hearing from us. They need to know what our struggles look like. They need to see faces. They need to hear our opinions about everything from funding to vouchers to accountability. We owe them that. We should call them, and they should call us.

2016 is gone, and good riddance to it. Bring on 2017, come what may.

One more chance to get it right

December 13, 2016 2 comments

Critics of Oklahoma’s current A-F Report Card accountability system (including me) typically have two complaints about the system. First is that the methodology is poor. Half the score is simply a rendering of the percentage of students passing tests – which is closely tied to poverty; the other half is tied to growth. In measuring growth, we’re also double counting our lowest-performing students. In other words, our students who struggle the most count a total of three times.

The other issue many of us have is with the A-F label we ultimately attach to each school. It’s insulting to distill all the work schools do into a single indicator. Even though A-F is not explicitly a ranking system, much of the public assumes that an A school is better than a B school. Context be damned. A is better than B. Always.

For these reasons, the Legislature tasked the Oklahoma State Department of Education with leading a task force to make recommendations for improving school accountability prior to the end of this calendar year. As directed, the OSDE brought together “students, parents, educators, organizations representing students with disabilities and English language learners, higher education professionals, career technology educators, experts in assessment and accountability, community-based organizations, tribal representatives, and businesses and community leaders.”

The task force met four times and provided the OSDE with feedback. The last of these meetings was on November 9th. On November 28th, the US Department of Education changed one key piece of the federal requirements under which we have to operate. We no longer have to have a summative score. The task force never met after that one requirement was removed.

It’s important to note that we don’t know how the task force conversation would have sounded if they could have discussed revising our accountability system with this piece of information. I doubt the different constituency groups would have been unanimous in their feelings on A-F Report Cards, or any other type of summative score. We also can’t know what the OSDE would have done with the feedback, even if it had been given. Task force members gathered to provide feedback only. They were not a voting body with any kind of decision-making authority.

To be clear, this is not a criticism of the work that has been done or the leadership under which the task force has worked. Superintendent Hofmeister and her staff expertly led this process. The lead researcher, Marianne Perie, from the University of Kansas, was thorough and good at explaining statistical processes to an audience with a varied background in that kind of work. Ultimately, the methodology of the accountability system being presented to the State Board of Education this week is solid. It will likely yield results that are not singularly correlated to poverty.

The end product is good, and an improvement over the current accountability system. That solves half of the problem from paragraph one. The other half remains – that schools will still receive a summative score.

I’ve always bristled at the idea that we need to label our schools this way. By always, I mean from the moment I began writing this blog nearly five years ago. I don’t think a star rating system would be much better. School accountability isn’t Yelp, or this strange sign I found in China a few years ago.

star-rated-toilet

I believe in accountability and transparency. Publish our schools’ test scores. Publish any data point you want. Just provide context. A summative score doesn’t do that. No matter how much detail is on the OSDE website for each school, the newspapers will skip to the end and publish the thing that’s easiest to consume. Calling A-F accountability, though, is like calling Velveeta cheese. It’s an accountability-like substance.

Recently, a couple of Mid-Del employees put together a list of all the schools in the five largest counties in the state and sorted them by grade span and by poverty. For example, one table showed all the elementary schools that have between 25% and 35% of student receiving free or reduced lunch (FRL). Of the 23 schools in that table, Mid-Del had one, and it had the highest numerical score on the current A-F system.

schwartz

Compared with similar schools, Schwartz Elementary has outstanding academic performance, however you measure it. On the other end of the spectrum, there were 60 elementary schools on the list with an FRL rate at or above 95%. We had one such school, and it had a 68 on the report card. That’s a D+, and it’s higher than 53 of the other schools on the list.

Numerical Grade Distribution of Elementary Schools with at least 95% FRL
70-78 5
60-69 11
50-59 23
40-49 13
33-39 8

Let that sink in. No school in the five largest counties in the state with higher than 95% FRL had a numerical grade higher than a 78. Meanwhile, none of the schools in the 25% to 35% range had a score lower than 80. Does this mean that all schools serving mostly upper-middle class kids are better than all schools serving the kids with the highest levels of poverty? Of course not.

This is the thing I hate – the labels. If you provide most people with this entire view, they’ll get it. An A on a report card may be misleading. So may an F. Even though the new accountability system will do more to provide context, the summative grade will damage that effort.

A-F Report Cards feed a narrative. They are one of the most toxic pieces of the recent education reform agenda. They blur the difference between simple and simplistic.

Please understand that I hope the State Board of Education this week will recognize the hard work of the state superintendent, her staff, and the entire task force. Regardless of how they see the A-F labels, they need to recognize the quality of the work that is being presented to them. I hope the legislature and governor will recognize this too.

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