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Cheap Budget Trick

July 31, 2016 Comments off

While the school year and legislative session were both coming to an end in May, one story of budget cuts – and not a public education story – really stuck with me. From KFOR:

The Department of Human Services is freezing a program which helps low-income Oklahoma families pay for child care.

New applications within the child care subsidy program will soon be denied in an effort to save money.

Those who are currently enrolled in the system will not be impacted.

It’s those moms who are currently pregnant or those families who will soon need the financial help who are about to have to figure out a way to do without.

Baylea Brown is a single mom in the Oklahoma City area.

She relies on the state subsidy to help pay for child care for her 9-year-old son, Gavin, who has special needs.

“Because of the subsidy, I can pay my rent. I can pay for food,” she said.

It’s a subsidy that helps low-income Oklahoma families.

But, starting June 1, 2016, the program will be frozen.

“The agency has run out of money this year,” said Sheree Powell, spokesperson for DHS.

NewsChannel 4 obtained an internal memo from DHS.

The memo was sent out earlier this week, alerting employees to the changes that are coming.

The memo states “Due to the ongoing state budget shortfall, DHS will freeze enrollment for the child care subsidy program effective June 1, 2016.”

It goes on to say “Although new applications will not be approved, applicants still have the right to apply for the program and should not be prevented from doing so. However, applicants should be informed that all new applications will be denied. Notice of denial will be mailed to all who apply after the deadline. This decision cannot be appealed. However, if a client requests a hearing on this decision the request should be accepted and forwarded to the DHS Appeals Unit. The Appeals Unit will notify the applicant that the decision cannot be appealed.”

DHS also has concerns.

“Some of the things we’re concerned about is that families won’t be able to find quality child care, or they’ll start leaving their children in unsafe situations, maybe with relatives or friends who really aren’t qualified to care for their children,” Powell said.

Brown’s glad her subsidy is safe, but she knows just how hard life will potentially be for the families who will soon be denied the help.

“That just sounds kind of impossible – to work and to pay bills and to have daycare,” she said.

This is reality for families below the poverty line. Society at-large (me included) wants parents to be able to work. Often the cost of child care is an obstacle. Freezing the subsidy will keep thousands of parents out of the workforce. Remember that the next time you stumble across a conversation in which your friends and neighbors are talking about poor people just wanting handouts. The state has just frozen a program that would help people who are trying to find a place in the workforce.

Another non-education cut from April also has stayed with me. From the Tulsa World:

A state association of health-care providers claims up to 93 percent of Oklahoma nursing homes will cease operating if a 25 percent cut in the Medicaid rate goes into effect, creating a crisis for Oklahoma families and jeopardizing 16,900 jobs.

This could place about 16,800 elderly and disabled patients at risk of being displaced from their nursing homes.

The decision by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to slash the rate came last week as the state slips into a deepening revenue failure, estimated to reach at least $1.3 billion by next fiscal year.

In the past five years, almost $500 million has been cut from the Medicaid program, mostly by reducing rates to health-care providers and restricting services available to SoonerCare members. The past decade has seen about $1 billion in cuts.

The recent rate decrease comes from agency officials anticipating cuts of $64 million in the program needed by the end of June.

This reduces federal matching funds, which will total a loss of $164 million in total state and federal funding for Oklahoma Medicaid. The reduced rate goes into effect June 1.

It may get worse. Agency officials have stated another $100 million reduction may be in store for next fiscal year’s budget.

This story alarmed me mostly because I had no idea how reliant our nursing homes were on state funding. I knew they weren’t get rich schemes for their operators, but I didn’t realize they were functioning that close to the margin between making a small profit and having to close.

I also didn’t realize that SoonerCare had scaled back services so much. My own kids were on SoonerCare when I was a classroom teacher. We also qualified for WIC. Even though this cut is not directly an educational issue, it is probably worth noting that state programs subsidize a number of public employees – education and otherwise.

I mention all of this now because of Governor Fallin’s announcement that she’s interested in having the Legislature return to the Capitol for a special session to discuss teacher raises.

Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday said she is considering calling a special session to ask lawmakers to use excess state funds on teacher raises.

The state recently closed out the fiscal year and had $140.8 million left. The action comes after a revenue failure that resulted in two cuts to state-appropriated agencies.

The cuts were deeper than were needed, said John Estus, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

“I’ve begun discussions with legislative leaders to consider calling lawmakers to return in special session to address the issue of teacher pay raises,” Fallin said. “I continue to support a pay raise for teachers, having called on lawmakers at the beginning of this year’s session to approve a teacher pay raise.”

In other words, state agencies received cuts that were bigger than what they needed to be. The timing of the announcement, with run-off elections around the corner, and with momentum building for State Question 779 (penny sales tax), is one thing that concerns me. That’s just one thing, though.

The Tulsa World included a graphic with their story showing the amount that would be returned to different state agencies, if the Legislature does nothing.

Agency Rebates.png

Look at that list. Yes, public education would receive $40 million back. Fallin is proposing that our legislators return to the Capitol to make that happen. She’s also asking them to give us the $23 million from health care, $20 million from higher education, $16 million from DHS, and every other penny.. I have a problem with that. Each of those entities serves our students too. Everything on this list is a core function of state government.

There is nothing prudent or conservative about trying to give teacher raises on the backs of these other agencies. Unfortunately, some of our state leaders are pathologically committed to trying to convince us that teacher salaries can increase significantly without generating new revenue.

That brings me to a third objection: this isn’t recurring revenue. In that sense, this idea is nothing more serious than Janet Barresi’s ill-fated 2K4T scheme three years ago. I’m pretty sure we can’t guarantee that the state will more or less forget to allocate $140 million next year too, can we?

Again, this isn’t new money. It’s money that OMES cut in excess of what they had to. According to CCOSA, the cuts were in fact illegal.

“We believe the director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services did not have the legal authority to reduce allotments to state agencies based on estimates that the state general revenue fund might fail,” wrote Owens, an attorney. “We respectfully request that the allocations that were unlawfully reduced from the state general revenue fund be immediately returned to the agencies from which they were cut.”

Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, who oversees the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said the allegation that the cut was illegal is “as laughable as it is totally wrong.”

“These reductions were made using the same statutory authority and procedures as all other revenue failure reductions in prior years, many of which also wound up being deeper than necessary and also resulted in excess funds being allocated either administratively by this agency or at the discretion of the Legislature,” Doerflinger said. “When this year’s midyear cuts were made, OMES pursued the only lawful avenue given that revenues and oil prices were in a freefall.”

I don’t know about you, but Doerflinger’s defense seems to be that the state budget was in a freefall and they made a guess at how much to cut. I can live with that explanation. Seriously, as someone whose leadership team made a menu of misery not knowing how deeply we needed to cut, I get it.

What I don’t get is the idea that we can somehow get a teacher raise out of this. Governor Fallin has been calling for one since her State of the State address in February, but there has been no movement on any of her revenue-generating ideas (that she somehow doesn’t think are the same thing as tax increases. Her logic pretty much boils down to:

“The Legislature is still being paid and is still on the state payroll now, even those who are term limited out,” Fallin said. “I think they should come back and do their job.”

Based on the quotes I’ve seen in articles and on social media from various legislators, most aren’t thrilled at the idea of returning to the Capitol. Even if they were, they’d have to get that bus off of them first.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoman thinks Fallin’s plan is adequate, and the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs think teachers in Oklahoma are doing pretty well already. I’m not quoting either of them, but the links are there. Look if you want.

My gut tells me there won’t be a special session. The people running for re-election this fall probably don’t want to take money from all the other state agencies and give it to public schools right now. Meanwhile, this will be a small speed bump for the SQ 779 supporters. Unless a genuine and sustainable plan appears from the people who’ve had years to write one, the penny sales tax is still the best option available.

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A-F Breakdown: Let’s Define #ourschool Ourselves

November 8, 2015 2 comments

Each of the last two weeks the Journal Record has published columns by individuals affiliated with a certain right-wing non-partisan think tank in which the writer is critical of those of us who have been critical of the A-F Report Cards. I enjoy watching people defend the indefensible as much as anybody, but it’s probably good to run a scorecard of the responses we’ve seen so far.

First, it was Oklahoma City University professor Andrew Spiropoulos who wrote about being puzzled that Governor Fallin didn’t even defend her own reforms:

But when you don’t control the debate, you lose control of the government. Look at what has transpired this month concerning the issue of education reform. One of the most important and bitter fights of the Gov. Mary Fallin years was the establishment of the state A-F school and district grading system.

While managing the system is always a difficult work in progress, the system’s benefits are evident. Every month, it seems, you read an inspiring story about a school, usually in the inner city, that used a failing grade as a spur to transform itself and, because of these efforts, improved both student achievement and its state grade.

But the education establishment isn’t going to allow proof that a reform is working to temper their lust to repeal it. As you would expect, the bureaucrats took the certification of this year’s grades as an opportunity to once again criticize the system and call for its repeal. The state superintendent of public instruction, the education establishment’s hired hand, refused to promote or even defend her own department’s work.

Did he really just call us the education establishment? That’s so 2014 of him.

I also find the governor’s silence telling. Maybe she’s busy managing the boon to our economy that a decade of tax cuts has brought the state. As deeply moved as Spiropoulos is by anecdotal stories of schools making great gains, he fails to see that outliers prove nothing  when it comes to dispelling trends. For most of those schools, the gains have come with the infusion of federal school improvement funds and a narrowed academic focus. One of those is a good thing. The other is a narrowed academic focus.

As I’ve said in different ways countless times, a singular focus on testing sucks the passion out of both teaching and learning. Curiosity – not test prep packets and the loss of electives – is the root of learning.

Michael Carnuccio, the outgoing president of said think tank also expressed his disdain for our collective show of frustration with the A-F grades.

When Oklahoma’s new A-F report cards were released last month, many in the education community were quick to pronounce the grading system “flawed” and “unfair” and to insist that the grades don’t accurately reflect student performance.

Tulsa World columnist Jay Cronley noticed the defensiveness and remarked (sensibly, I thought) that “if people focused more on improving themselves and their families than complaining about everything from the headline in the newspaper to the testing procedure, maybe more schools would improve their grades.”

First, I’ll take issue with Jay Cronley. I can’t speak for the entire education establishment, but in the course of my typical 60 hour week, I maybe spend an hour or two complaining about public policy issues. I do some more on my own time, as if that’s a thing. The truth is that we’re too busy trying to teach kids and run schools to sit in our palaces and dwell on every bad idea. Yes, we have increased our advocacy against those who insist on repeating the false narrative that public education is failing. We do plenty more than that, though.

Carnuccio then lists every other report card known to man. For each, I could have a separate response. I’ll be brief, however. Oklahoma schools have more students in poverty than most other states. Oklahoma is outperformed by most other states. The US has more students in poverty than most of the comparison countries. The US educates ALL students; other countries don’t. So yes, there are statistical differences there too.

With Oklahoma’s A-F Report Cards, if we were to compare school sites’ poverty levels to the report card grades, we would see a strong correlation, just as we did in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Similarly, if we ranked states and countries by poverty levels, we’d see similar trends. Oh, wait, that’s already been done.

Thanks, Rob.

For what it’s worth, in case you missed it, Dr. Joe Siano (Norman) and I wrote a brief message expressing our thoughts on the A-F Report Cards. The Oklahoman was kind enough to run it. It wasn’t just two OKC metro-area superintendents, though. CCOSA sent the letter in advance to their members, and over 230 superintendents around the state signed off in agreement.

Are we dodging accountability? No, just mythology. Here’s how we ended the letter:

Fortunately, a task force is working with researchers to study options and solutions to address flaws that have been identified. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University have questioned the methodology and the usefulness of the A-F calculations. And, the creation of the task force, proposed by our own state leaders, clearly demonstrates that inaccurate and misleading information is being distributed to parents about Oklahoma’s schools.

As teachers and administrators, we should be held accountable for our work. However, any accountability system should be an accurate measure of the comprehensive work that contributes to the overall success of our students and schools. In spite of the millions of state dollars spent annually on the current system, it is not helpful in guiding districts. Instead, district and state officials spend countless hours tracking data errors for a product that has no instructive value.

Regardless of the accountability system used, we remain committed to student success and will continue to advocate on behalf of our state’s future leaders. We hope that ongoing research and commitment by state leaders and school district officials will lead to an improved measure that we can use in helping patrons understand all the indicators of school success.

Others who came out against the report cards include State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist. Hofmeister’s press release points out that even the USDE has problems with the system. In fact, few in the Legislature who still support it. That’s why they ordered a study about ways to reform it. That study includes researchers from the state’s flagship universities who have criticized the grades from the first year moving forward.

All this is to say that the scorecard stacks more heavily to the side of those of us who think these report cards are a slap in the face. Maybe it’s a breakdown in confidence that caused the governor’s silence.

(Did I say breakdown? Hold on for some gratuitous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.)

I’ve always objected to the letter grades on a very basic level. If all you want to tell me about my school is that we are an A or an F or something in between, you’re missing the bigger picture. We do things that aren’t measured – always have, always will. Sometimes, that one thing that keeps a child in school is something that a test or a report card just can’t capture.

That’s why I floated the idea of a new hashtag to a couple of blogger friends the same day that Spiropoulos published in the Journal Record. None of us could come up with a good one that we could use to capture what’s right with our schools. They were either to clunky or too easy to mock if you’re a middle schooler.

That night, I was excited to read Seth Meier’s post on his blog, Excellence in Mediocrity. It was simply titled #OurSchool. He included several sources of pride for Jarman Middle School. It was something I could appreciate as both a blogger, and his superintendent. Here are some of the things Seth highlighted:

  • #ourschool examined referral data that focused on student demographics, which allows us to individualize positive behavior supports for students.
  • #ourschool provided a huge basket of goodness for a teacher that recently endured a heart attack.
  • #ourschool had school-wide team competitions to help build unity within our grade-level teams.
  • #ourschool gave food to families that do not have any.
  • #ourschool teaches with integrity, even when we feel that we aren’t appreciated.
  • #ourschool has worked with amazing parents.
  • #ourschool has been parents to those that need it.
  • #ourschool has helped homeless families.
  • #ourschool has challenged our kids in the best ways.
  • #ourschool has grown as a family.

This is what we should all be doing. We should be fighting back with the things that bring us pride. Instead of letting think tanks that want to destroy public education define us, we must do it ourselves.

CCOSA Call to Action – Parent Trigger

March 11, 2013 1 comment

The state’s largest administrators group (CCOSA) issued a legislative alert today, calling for “all Oklahoma taxpayers, school patrons, parents and educators” to not only oppose SB 1001 – the Parent Trigger – but also to actively voice their concern to legislators. The CCOSA talking points include:

  • Mutual respect and collaboration between teachers, parents and districts is the key to success in our schools.  SB 1001 pits parents, teachers, principals, and school districts against each other and creates divisiveness in communities.  For example, Section 5 of SB 1001 turns the position of school principal and assistant principal into popularity contests.
  • Section 3 of SB 1001 bases a parents’ ability to trigger change on a school site’s grade on Oklahoma’s A-F grading system that OU and OSU researchers have declared “unsalvageable.” This inappropriate use of the A-F system is neither wise public policy nor good for Oklahoma’s children.
  • SB1001 transforms public school site(s) into privately operated charter school(s) circumventing local taxpayers’ and local school board members’ authority to operate their school(s).
  • The Oklahoma Education Coalition has found no organized Oklahoma parent group in support of SB 1001. The Oklahoma Education Coalition shares the concerns of Oklahoma’s various parent associations that SB 1001 is being supported by a special interest group NOT affiliated with our state.

The alert also includes contact information for Rep. Jason Nelson, the bill’s House sponsor, as well as all members of the House Common Education Committee and the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Common Education.

As I wrote Saturday, this is a solution to a problem no one seems to be having. I will be making contact, by email and phone, from my personal accounts. And on my own time. I encourage you to do the same.

Independent Analysis of Oklahoma’s A-F Report Cards

January 18, 2013 2 comments

Yesterday, a report critical of Oklahoma’s A-F Report Cards was released by CCOSA (the state administrators’ organization) and OSSBA (the state school board members’ association). The report was produced jointly by the Oklahoma Center for Education Policy (OU) and the Center for Educational Research and Evaluation (OSU). In other words, a lot of people smarter than I looked at the inputs and outputs of the A-F Report Cards and found significant flaws. This paragraph from the report’s executive summary speaks volumes:

Accountability systems are only useful if their measures are credible and clear.  Despite good intentions, the features of the Oklahoma A-F grading system produce school letter grades that are neither clear, nor comparable; their lack of clarity makes unjustified decisions about schools. Further, A-F grades are not productive for school improvement because they do not explain the how or why of low performance.  Building on what has already been done, Oklahoma can and should move toward a more trustworthy and fair assessment system for holding schools accountable and embracing continuous, incremental improvement.

The report then lists problems statistically with the calculations. Scores assigned “do not seem to correspond to any recognizable metric.” The use of proficiency levels “introduces grouping error.” There is “unclear conceptual meaning of the index” for student growth. Whole school performance grades are skewed by “overreliance on attendance and graduation rates.”

The authors also discuss practical consequences of the evaluation system:

  • By not making explicit threats to the validity of report card grades, the OSDE misinforms the public about the credibility and utility of the A-F accountability system.

  • Performance information from the current A-F Report Card has limited improvement value; particularly, it is not useful for diagnosing causes of performance variation.

  • The summative aspects of the accountability system overshadow formative uses of assessment and performance.

  • High stakes testing, as a cornerstone of school assessment and accountability, corrupts instructional delivery by focusing effort on learning that is easily measured.

The first of these is the key problem with what the SDE has done by introducing the report cards. When the SDE says a school or district is failing, the determination is based on highly flawed information. Honestly, they lack credibility in identifying great schools as well. The last of these consequences is a problem somewhat independent of the A-F Report Cards; we’ve been limiting the content of teaching for decades by over-testing. The increased stakes now just amplify this problem.

One word not used in the report is volatile, but the findings point to the fact that any school’s letter grade lacks stability. If we are to change the weights of one of the variables, just a little, the letter grade could change. Part of this is the arbitrary and capricious manner in which the formula was constructed. Another part is what the report identified as grouping error. All schools scoring a B in any category get 3 points. An 89 gets 3 points. So does an 80. If we are to accept the premise that these scales have meaning, then an 80 would be better grouped with a 79 than with an 89, right?

A lot of what’s in the report matches what I’ve been saying for months. Fortunately, the authors have the professional credibility that an anonymous blogger can’t enjoy. They also have the research credentials to make the criticisms more pointed. They say intellectually what I’ve been trying to say passionately. They take their time saying what I usually try to cover in 500-800 words.

It would be a disservice to the authors to cut and paste the entire 32 page document here, but the whole document is quoteworthy. It’s their work, not mine, but I absolutely love it.

So far, the Tulsa World has responded favorably to the report. The Oklahoman must still be reading it.

Do yourself a favor. Read it cover to cover. Share it. Prolifically.

Policy Disconnect

January 16, 2013 Comments off

It goes without saying that Oklahoma’s elected officials don’t see eye-to-eye with school leaders on matters of education policy. I’m saying it anyway.

This morning, Todd Garrison tweeted a picture of CCOSA’s legislative goals from the organization’s legislative conference in Oklahoma City. They include full funding of the major reform initiatives underway in this state, better implementation of the A-F Report Cards, streamlining the testing sequence, better salaries for school employees, and more local control.

Several Oklahoma administrators that I follow on Twitter also kept something of a live blog of the conference, with updates and commentary. (If you’re on Twitter, and you haven’t bookmarked #oklaed, you should. I’m trying to get better about using it when I write or link to content. It’s a way to organize the conversation for those of us trying to preserve public education.)

Unfortunately for those of us working in the profession, the legislative agenda is likely to include nothing from CCOSA’s wish list. Instead, it will focus on arming teachers, giving parents a trigger to create charter schools, and expanding the availability of vouchers from to more students.

The SDE is asking for more money, in spite of the fact that Barresi has spent the last 25 months saying her reforms could be implemented within existing resources. The money they want is targeted for programs that schools didn’t ask for and that remove control from locally-elected school boards. Nothing in the proposed budget attends to the years of funding that has been lost by legislative inaction. The paltry sums designated for reading remediation and professional development are nothing compared to the millions to be spent on testing and development of VAM.

This year, more than ever, it is critical for educators and anyone else who cares about Oklahoma continuing to have a great system of public education to be vocal. The legislature and governor need to know what is important to us. Fund what works. Fund what’s required. Quit making new policies that will break the system and listen to parents and school board members.

CCOSA has the right priorities. It’s up to the rest of us to be loud enough that our politicians can’t ignore us.

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