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An Open Letter from the Jealous Cabal

April 11, 2021 Comments off

In case you haven’t heard yet, the State Board of Education (SBE) approved a settlement with the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association during their March 25 Board meeting. Against the advice of their in-house counsel, the SBE voted 4-3 essentially to allow charter schools to have access to local revenue, in addition to the state revenue they already receive.

I’m not going to rehash that decision, which for the record, I find problematic. Instead, I’d like to address the multi-faceted defense of that decision that seems to rest on the shoulders of the newest member of the SBE, Trent Smith.

Smith made the motion to approve the resolution settling the lawsuit and has been its most vocal proponent. This weekend alone, he appeared on News 9’s The Hot Seat with Scott Mitchell and penned a letter to the editor that appeared in the Tulsa World

The letter in the World was pretty straightforward. He simply stated that the resolution rights a mis-application of state law. Those of us opposed to the settlement disagree and point to the original intent of the charter school movement, which leaned on public-private partnerships for the funding of charter schools. 

Smith’s interview with Mitchell, however, was quite a journey. I watched it a few times, took some notes, and have comments. Let me unpack a few direct quotes from the five-minute segment.

“Not only was [the settlement] not a mistake; it was to a large degree, premeditated.” – (0:40)

What exactly does Smith mean by premeditated? That’s usually not a term used by someone defending their actions. We know that the SBE met in an executive session for four hours, discussed a number of items, and then came back with this resolution. He read the motion from his computer screen. Does he mean that the decision to contradict their lawyer’s decision was made prior to the meeting?

“The public education cabal, if you will, that has been in existence for decades and decades and decades, they’re interesting in protecting the status quo.” – (1:40)

No, we’re interested in educating children. 

What really got me going today was the word, cabal. And to be honest, I think it was used intentionally to be provocative. It worked. I’m provoked. My friend, Matt Riggs, superintendent in Macomb, tweeted about it, which is how I became aware of the Mitchell-Smith discussion in the first place.

Merriam-Webster defines cabal as “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot.” I also vaguely remember an 80’s era video game called Cabal. 

I really don’t know what we’re doing that is in any way a contrived scheme or secretive. Oklahoma education advocacy groups and district leaders have been openly vocal about their thoughts on the SBE settlement. Many districts, including mine, have either approved, or plan to approve, legal action over this decision. We post this to our local board agendas, which aren’t exactly hard to find.

While I agree with Mr. Smith about preferring a legislative solution to a litigated one, that could be many things to different people. And I’m all for those discussions being had in the light of day.

Not in an executive session. And certainly not in a premeditated manner.

“I don’t think it’s any secret, and they don’t like to talk about this, that Oklahoma’s public education system is always near the bottom of the barrel….There’s only 50 states, and we can’t seem to get above 45th, 42nd, 48th.” – (1:50)

At this point, Smith lays down tracks for the rest of his comments. Our schools are bad and need competition

I’ve been a public school educator for 28 years, and I’m the son of a retired teacher. I’ve been hearing that my whole life. I’ve also been hearing my whole life about how poorly funded Oklahoma’s schools are compared with the rest of the country. Yes, our Legislature increased its investment in education in 2018 and 2019. After a decade of – at best – flat funding, we made up some ground that we quickly lost to other states.

Our state has a long history of not supporting public schools. Then our leaders blame the schools for not being in great shape – similar to how we as society tend to blame poor people for not having money.

Ever since HB 1017 passed in 1990, wealthy and well-connected influencers around the state have been trying to demonize public education and the people who work every day to educate our children. But sure, we’re the cabal

“The Academy of Seminole has done a great job graduating a vast majority of their graduating class this year – their first graduating class. The majority of those students will graduate with associate’s degrees.” – (2:25)

That’s fantastic! It’s worth mentioning, though, that Seminole High School, the local traditional public high school, posted a 100% graduation rate in 2019. The state average that year was 97.2%.

It’s also exciting to see that they promote early college access, as do most high schools in Oklahoma. I’m not sure why Smith thinks that’s unique. Our public school districts have agreements with career tech centers and higher education institutions that allow a multi-directional educational path for students and a springboard into postsecondary life.. Oklahoma’s high school juniors and seniors regularly earn college credit and even industry certification before graduation. The Academy’s specific focus on this is noteworthy, and a good example of how charter schools can target a family’s specific interests.

“As a parent with two children in Yukon Public Schools, it’s time that we step out of the Stone Age and a public education system that was designed to produce industrial workers.” – (2:45)

I’m going to come back to this one in a few paragraphs, but I’m pretty sure that there weren’t many industrial workers during the actual Stone Age.

“What we have now is Henry Ford vs. horses. We have a public education system trying to protect the horses. And we’re trying to make automobiles. And it’s just like, do you want to use a landline or a cell phone?” – (3:05)

If you can hear my exasperated sigh, it’s because I thought we did a better job teaching simile and metaphor than that in our public schools. Maybe we’re 45th, 42nd, 48th at that as well. I get that Smith, as a new member of the SBE, may not be fully up-to-speed on all the current lingo. We’re laser-focused on collegeandcareerreadiness. One word. It rolls off the tongue.

Oklahoma’s public schools do a good job of getting students ready for college. Or careers. Or the military. Or something. One way or another, we spend a considerable amount of time preparing students for whatever it is that comes next. Not every student will graduate knowing how they want to spend the next 40-50 years, and that’s fine. They all need to graduate at least knowing what they can do while they’re figuring that out.

As schools that are part of the public state system, we have to follow state standards, prepare students for state tests built around those standards, and conform to countless legislative whims that tie us back to another era. As much as I’ve seen public education evolve during my career, sometimes I feel like the only thing holding us back is state government. We’re not teaching Henry Ford’s horses to use the landline, exactly, or whatever the point of that sentence was.

“We need to completely re-think how we’re educating our kids, and in my opinion, the settlement we were able to pass in the board meeting at the end of March is just one small step towards the greater reforms that really need to happen.” – (3:20)

Please, Mr. Smith, do continue. I’m sure that we’d all love to hear about the greater reforms you’d like to see implemented.

“…[Rep. Hilbert’s Bill] would solve the two main problems the education establishment has with our settlement, which is the funding of virtual charter schools, and let’s all be honest, they’re talking about Epic, which I think has done a fantastic job. 60,000 families in Oklahoma have chosen to send their children there.” – (4:10)

Well, 60,000 students were enrolled in Epic in October. After the statewide enrollment count, however, many returned to their local districts. This happens every year.

Besides, didn’t Smith brag on the Academy of Seminole’s graduation rate as evidence of the great job they’re doing? According to a 2019 article posted on The Frontier, Epic had a graduation rate of 40%. That’s not fantastic.

“I don’t think they should vote to dissolve that entity. I think that the problem is a bunch of jealousy. I think there are people who are mad that they’re losing students. And a lot of that is because they’re having to compete for the first time.” – (4:25)

I really want to know who told Smith that anytime people don’t like you it’s because of jealousy. Sure, if you win all the time like the Yankees used to, everyone else will despise you. But sometimes – and stop me if this sounds ridiculous – people don’t like you because of legitimate grievances over the things you do. 

I personally have no ill will towards the statewide virtual charter schools that aren’t currently under state or federal investigation. And I feel no particular jealousy towards the teachers who work for Epic or the students who attend their schools. I want every student in Oklahoma to get a good education. And yes, I want families to have agency in determining what that should look like for their children.

That’s why I’m not against charter schools. I just prefer the original model that relied on private-public partnerships. And it’s why I’m not against school choice. I just prefer not to use that term as an umbrella that includes voucher programs for private schools, where the choice is still in the hands of the private schools, rather than the families.

“Oklahoma’s workforce isn’t doing so great, and a lot of that is because of the education system that we currently have in place.” – (4:55)

Is that the industrial workforce or the stone age workforce? And while we’re at it, what else do you want to blame on public schools? Bad weather? Earthquakes? Cottonwood pollen and the offensive smell of Bradford Pears?

Governor Kevin Stitt appointed Smith to the SBE in December, replacing a member who did not vote as the governor had wanted. If the SBE had voted as their legal counsel advised them to, I imagine we would have seen a rinse and repeat of that maneuver. We’re in a state right now that requires absolute fealty to its chief executive. Disagree and be gone.

During the interview, Smith briefly touches on being a product of Clinton Public Schools and the fact that his children are in Yukon Public Schools. I don’t think he’s against public schools. I genuinely think he wants them to be re-imagined, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, provoking and insulting those of us who have chosen public education as a profession won’t transform us into a #toptenstate.

On Numerators and Denominators and the Reckless Redistribution of School Funding

Last week, during debate over HB 2078, Sen. Greg Treat (R – OKC) waxed nostalgic over his  younger days when he was a mathlete in school. In discussing the way he feels school funding should be distributed, he made sure we all understood numerators and denominators. 

I felt like I was watching a scene from Real Genius, which I probably did later in the week. I mean, the movie holds up so well all these years later.

Not many people know this, but I too was a mathlete back in the day. In today’s political climate, I think my teachers probably would have been forced by law to reveal that information to my parents if they suspected it. Sure, I had a C in Algebra, but I did have all those MathCounts trophies.

I’m digressing, but in my defense, it’s early, and I didn’t think I was going to be writing this morning, but a major piece of legislation dropped last night. The bill, a committee substitute for HB 2755, is scheduled to be heard this morning in the Senate Appropriations Committee. It is on the agenda for 10:00. 

In simple terms, the bill has two impacts:

  • Beginning July 1, money from building funds and all local- and state-dedicated revenue except bond issues would be shifted from traditional school districts to charter schools based on the number of students who live in their district but attend a charter. 
  • Virtual charter schools would receive only state aid and state-appropriated dollars.

On the surface, that seems pretty harmless, but since I’m a (former) mathlete, I’m still thinking about those darn numerators and denominators. Or maybe, since I’m a superintendent, I’m thinking about the fact that our local revenue only goes so far and that dividing it further (by adding more to the numerator), has a deleterious effect on **checks notes** oh yeah, every other school district in the state. 

Maybe you’re somewhere far away from Oklahoma City or Tulsa, and you’re thinking that this bill really won’t impact your local school district. After all, you are several counties removed from any physical charter school. And they seem to have carved out an exception for virtual schools. Keep in mind, though, that statewide blended charter schools draw students from all 77 counties. Besides, anything that draws down from the funding formula impacts all districts.

Yes, my friend, you’re in this too.

This bill, in a sense, codifies the surprise settlement that the State Board of Education – against advice of their legal counsel – made a few weeks ago. Ostensibly, the problem this solution is solving is the disparity between per pupil funding for traditional public schools and for charter schools. Rather than being additive, it is divisive. 

They’re taking the same dollars and spreading them around further. Not very mathletic of them, is it? Among reasons I oppose this bill:

  • Local property tax as a funding source exclusive to the local school district is a fundamental piece of Oklahoma school finance enshrined in the Oklahoma Constitution. 
  • Public school districts do not have excess building funds they can afford to lose, and any shifting of dollars will hurt students.
  • Charter schools do not have locally elected boards that taxpayers can hold accountable for spending decisions.  
  • There are better mechanisms to fund capital needs of charter schools *and* public school districts that receive little ad valorem revenue. Oklahoma is one of only four states that doesn’t provide state funding for school capital improvements.
  • Shifting limited funding from one underfunded school district to another isn’t a solution.

If this disparity suddenly concerns our legislature, there is a better way to fix it. Instead of dividing already scarce resources, they could find a way to add to charter schools without taking away from the rest of us.

By the way, this is a central part of the governor’s re-election campaign plan. If you don’t believe me, see below:

The state board decision, the bills that passed last week, and even the legislative efforts to kneecap the State Auditor and Inspector’s investigation of Epic, are all part of a coordinated plan to run the Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos, and OCPA agenda of dismantling public education. Sadly, many of the well-meaning legislators who we elected because of their professed support for public schools are taking the bait and following along.

Be heard and be seen fighting for our students. There’s a way to fix the funding disparity without lowering the bar.

Below are the senators on the Appropriations Committee. Please reach out to them and ask for a no vote on HB 2755.

It Really Does Matter

Sometimes when I follow the happenings of the Oklahoma Legislature, I just shake my head and repeat the mantra I learned from that 1979 Bill Murray classic, Meatballs

So far, the First Session of the 58th Oklahoma Legislature is shaping up to be as bad – if not worse – than the First Session of the 53rd. Let’s review. 

The 2010 election brought us Gov. Fallin and State Superintendent She Who Shall not be Named. It also led to the 2011 legislative session that gave us:

  • Third grade retention law (since significantly improved)
  • A-F report cards for schools (modified several times since, marginally improved)
  • Private school vouchers (since increased)
  • Teacher evaluations tied to test scores (removed from law before ever happening)

This is merely a sample of educational reforms passed (without additional funding, I might add) ten years ago. At the time, it was a low-water mark for public schools. Gradually, though, some of the bad policies improved, or went away entirely. That change happened because we as public school advocates fought for it. 

One notable example of this was in 2015. That year, the Oklahoma Legislature passed HB 2625, which created a committee including parents in the decision-making process regarding the retention or promotion of third graders. In short, parents and educators were united to make sure that a single test score didn’t result in holding students back. Governor Fallin vetoed the bill, and the Legislature quickly and soundly overrode her veto (by a combined vote of 124-19). There wasn’t even floor discussion. They just walked in, voted, and left. It was glorious.

As I watch this year’s Legislature, I find myself feeling low again. Certainly the toll of 13 months of pandemic life and school leadership contributes to that. Just the same, it seems like public schools are under constant attack, maybe to the worst degree since that session ten years ago. This is perfectly illustrated by the happenings of last Wednesday, when Governor Stitt signed two bills with better talking points than impacts. This is from the governor’s press release:

House Bill 2078 and Senate Bill 783 allow for students to attend public schools that best meet their needs and modernize the funding formula to match enrollment counts more accurately.

“This is a monumental day for education reform in Oklahoma,” said Gov. Stitt. “Education is not one-size-fits-all, and these bills allow parents and students to have the freedom to attend the best public school for them regardless of their ZIP code. Additionally, modernizing the funding formula ensures funding follows the student, not the school. These reforms are vital to getting Oklahoma to be a Top Ten state in education and I am proud of this Republican legislature for its dedication to putting students first.”

“Today is a historic day for education in Oklahoma,” said Secretary of Education Ryan Walters. “We have transformed funding for every single student in the state and empowered them to choose a school that best fits their needs. These two bills will work seamlessly together to have an immediate impact on the way we educate Oklahoma’s students and I commend our state leaders for getting this across the finish line.”

HB 2078, authored by Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Depew) and Sen. Zack Taylor (R-Seminole), modernizes the education funding formula by basing per-pupil funding on the most recent enrollment data. The previous system gave school districts multiple enrollment figures from which to base their funding, causing some districts to receive state funds for students who are no longer enrolled.

SB 783, authored by Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond), Sen. Kim David (R-Porter) and Rep. Brad Boles (R-Marlow), amends the Education Open Transfer Act to allow students the ability to transfer to another school district at any time, provided the district has space available.

Let’s be honest. We knew he was going to say Top Ten State at some point. It’s similar to how you have that one relative who ends every text with lol. You’ve seen it so much it’s lost all meaning.

The truth about HB 2078 is that it creates more volatility in the funding formula. It makes planning harder for districts. It also doesn’t make the funding follow the student that much, since districts will need to be more conservative with their fund balances to prepare for the unexpected. 

Meanwhile, SB 783 would better be described as an open transfer bill for families with the means to drive their children from one school district to another every single day. Since many of the growing districts in Oklahoma are already at capacity, they probably won’t be accepting many transfers anyway. As a superintendent, I’m happy to provide an education for whoever shows up. I want our schools full, and I stand by the work our teachers do to teach ALL kids, regardless of zip code. I just don’t think the bill is the egalitarian fix all that our state leaders are advertising it to be.

bill signing ceremony

Where is this going, now that I’m already 750 words deep into writing? After all, every educator membership group in the state opposed these bills. They passed anyway, and the governor gleefully signed them into law. Perhaps Bill Murray was right. Maybe it just doesn’t matter what we say or what we do. For whatever reason (or maybe a collection of reasons), there are more bills targeted at punishing teachers, administrators, and school board members than I’ve seen in years. 

My frustration was so high that I even wrote a post over Spring Break – my first topical blog post in over two years. The last straw for me was SB 639, which directly relates to students receiving the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship. It’s to be expected that our elected officials will from time to time attack the adults teaching kids as well as school district leaders. I wish it weren’t trend behavior, but as the son of a teacher, and a 28 year educator myself, I’ve seen it enough to expect it. This bill, however, was an attack on the most vulnerable students we serve. 

Friday, we received a glimmer of hope. After listening to our membership organizations, along with significant urging from higher education leaders, SB 639 has been revised in committee. They’ve removed the paragraph adding the payback provision. With that change, it’s actually a good bill. And it’s a reminder that we have to continue reaching out to our elected officials. We may not get them to listen every time, but they definitely won’t hear us if we aren’t talking to them.

This year’s Legislature will probably continue meeting for seven or eight more weeks. There are several live bills (both good and bad for public schools) in each legislative chamber. There are last-minute committee substitutes to be made. And as has been the case in years past, we know very little about the behind-closed-door budget discussions between the governor’s staff and the few legislators who get to be in the room where it happens.

Here are a few highlights (all in the House) of what we expect this week:

  • The House Banking, et.al. Committee will hear SB 267 on Monday. This bill would allow any retired educator to return to the classroom after being out for a year. This is a good measure that would help districts staff their classrooms when all the transfer students show up next year.
  • The House Rules Committee will hear SB 634 on Tuesday. This would require new paperwork each year for individuals to have membership dues deducted from paychecks. I don’t see it having much impact on how many teachers, support employees, or administrators join their professional organizations, but it will create a massive paperwork burden. One extremist think tank calls it a measure to protect free speech. That’s nonsense. Each of these employees already have the choice to join or not join. And many who quit do so mid-year. The only real impact will be a significant increase in paperwork. That’s not where I want my payroll department’s attention focused over the summer and at the beginning of the school year.
  • The same committee will also hear SB 962 on Tuesday. This bill would move school board elections to November. Currently, primaries are held in February and elections are held in April (two days from now, in fact). The stated purpose of the bill is to create more engagement in school board elections. The result, regardless of the intent, will be to insert a greater level of partisanship into the process. I personally like that school and municipal elections usually lack that kind of divisiveness and have their separate calendars. Sure, they aren’t always kind, respectful processes, but adding party politics won’t make them any more civil. Here’s a list of committee members, in case you want to reach out to them.
  • A bill that deserves its own separate blog post, SB 895, will likely be heard by the House Appropriations and Budget (A&B) Committee this week, though as I’m writing this, it does not appear on any posted committee agenda. This bill would – and I swear this isn’t one of those times I’m trying to be funny – allow state agencies under investigation to bypass the duly elected State Auditor and Inspector and SELECT THEIR OWN AUDITOR. Gee, what could go wrong. Maybe the better question is who would want something like this to happen? For more on that, I encourage you to read this March 11 Tulsa World article that connects the dots. Here’s a blurb:

An Epic Charter Schools co-founder’s recommendations for how State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office operates found their way into a bill that passed the Senate floor on Tuesday evening.

On Oct. 1, Byrd’s office issued an audit highly critical of Epic’s handling of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, but Epic has denied criminal wrongdoing and branded the state’s investigative audit report as an attack on school choice.

The next day, on Oct. 2, Epic co-founder Ben Harris and his wife Elizabeth VanAcker each gave maximum campaign donations of $2,800 allowed per election cycle to state Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, according to public records from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

On Jan. 21, Rosino introduced Senate Bill 895, which he authored. It passed off the Senate floor late Tuesday by a vote of 36-9 and next heads to the House for consideration.

Seriously, I encourage you to read the entire article. And the text of the bill. And then reach out to your House member, as well as those on the A&B Committee.

The stakes are too high for those of us who care about public education to remain silent. This year of all years – after all we’ve been through during the last 13 months – what we say and do does in fact matter. We may not get all the wins, but we need to be seen fighting for our students and our schools. 

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