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Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoman’

Top Ten Reasons to vote #oklaed in the Primary Elections

Two years ago, I made a list of the top 20 reasons to vote for anybody else other than Janet Barresi for state superintendent. At the end of the list, I also had a sizeable honorable mention list. With nine days until the primaries this year, I’m starting a top 10 list of reasons to vote for pro-public education candidates. We can’t sit this one out. Too much is riding on this.

  1. One person can’t fix bad education policy alone.

It wasn’t so long ago that teachers and friends of teachers banded together and let the world know that we were fed up. In 2014, we had been insulted too many times by the person who was supposed to be leading us. The sitting state superintendent had told us that she’d “be damned” if she’d let another generation of children be lost. She called schools failures. She sidled up to Jeb Bush and his merry band of corporate education reformers. She didn’t give teachers the time of day.

In 2014, #oklaed led the movement that fought to override Governor Fallin’s veto of HB 2625 and allow parents to have a voice in the decision to promote third graders to fourth grade. The very next month we really made some noise.

Remember When 6.24.14.png

When Joy Hofmeister won the Republican primary for State Superintendent of Public Instruction on June 24, 2014, and incumbent Janet Barresi came in third, we clinked our glasses together, exchanged fist bumps, and exhaled. Rob Miller even did a little dance.

Maybe we exhaled a little too soon. Other than Aaron Stiles in House District 45, no incumbent lost a race in 2014. Even more critical was the fact that Fallin won re-election over Joe Dorman (something that would be much less likely right now). In other words, for all the things that we eventually elected Joy Hofmeister to do, she had the same governor and essentially the same set of legislators who had enacted A-F Report Cards, third-grade retention, and value-added measurement.

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We now approach this year’s primary elections. The good news is that the power of #oklaed has grown. The problem is that instead of focusing all of that energy on one race, we are focused on many. With over 100 contested legislative races this time around (not all in the primary), the best most of us can do is cherry-pick a handful of races in which it is critical to protect the seat or flip the seat.

Also, we can’t exactly sneak up on anyone this time around. We’re loud and proud. The Oklahoman has attacked us. So has one of the tentacles associated with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. We’re kind of a big deal. People know who we are.

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Superintendent Hofmeister continues to support us. She helped promote an end to End-of-Instruction testing and the failure of Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE). She worked with legislatures to take value added measurements (VAM) out of teacher evaluation. We’re in for a clumsy transition, partly because of federal requirements still, but you have to acknowledge that we are seeing the early stages of the dismantling of high-stakes testing.

Hofmeister campaigned on these principals. Honestly, all six of Barresi’s challengers did. The Legislature has begun to reverse bad policy, but only to a point. Whatever you see the next point being – mine would be ending the third-grade retention law – we need to get the state superintendent and her department some help.

And for the record, I’m not saying that #oklaed activism was the sole reason that Barresi was sent home after one term. It took a rock star candidate to beat her in the primary. We supported the candidate, and it seems to have helped. We have many now who need our support. They need us making calls and knocking on doors for them. Give a day. Give half a day.

This is how we fix #oklaed – by supporting candidates who will support us. The time is now.

A-F: Flawed Now and Forever

This morning’s Oklahoman had a real surprise: an article by Ben Felder linking the state’s A-F Report Cards to the poverty level of schools. The connection between the two isn’t a surprise. It’s the placement of such a story.

A-F Oklahoman.jpg

Yep, that’s the front page of the Oklahoman. When I awoke this morning, I had messages and tweets telling me all about it. One tweet in particular pointed out that I had in fact made a similar connection on this blog – in 2012.

Yes, when Oklahoma issued the first A-F Report Cards in 2012 – using a formula that was even worse than the one we have now – I pointed out that the scores favored schools serving more affluent populations. Nonetheless, the Oklahoman supported the report cards on its editorial page.

Those who attribute good school grades to socio-economic factors are off the mark. Several A schools were in rural communities that aren’t concentrations of wealth and privilege. The poverty rate in Canton is higher than the statewide rate. Average household income is 14 percent lower than the statewide average. Yet Canton High School got an A.

Yes, you can always cherry pick the exceptions. Overall, though, poverty was a strong indicator of a school’s grade.

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For that post, I also looked at the specific distribution by site, for the schools with the highest and lowest poverty rates.

Here is the grade distribution of the high-poverty schools:

Letter Grade Distribution of High-Poverty Schools
A B C D F
2 8 32 46 2

Here is the grade distribution of the low-poverty schools:

Letter Grade Distribution of Low-Poverty Schools 
A B C D F
46 48 3 2 2

The truth is that this was also the case for the previous accountability system, API scores, as my very first blog post pointed out. It was still true the next year when the formula changed (and when the SDE had to recalculate scores a dozen or so times). Still, there was the Oklahoman criticizing the critics.

With the release of Oklahoma school sites’ A through F grades looming, opponents of accountability are predictably ramping up attacks. School officials should think twice before embracing one such tirade issued by a small group of college academics. To discredit A-F school grades, those researchers effectively argue that there is little correlation between a public school education and actual student learning.

The year doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s preemptive. Sometimes it’s reactionary. The stance of the Oklahoman has been consistent. They don’t like it when superintendents, researchers, or anyone else points out the obvious truth that an A school isn’t necessarily better than a C school.

That’s why today’s article, along with its prominence, isso surprising. Felder is a good researcher and writer, as today’s piece illustrates:

The average poverty rate for an A school in the state is 45 percent, based on analysis of the 2015 letter grade report from the Oklahoma state Department of Education.

As you move down the grading list, the poverty rate grows bigger — B: 58 percent, C: 67 percent, D: 76 percent, and F: 84 percent.

In Oklahoma County, which is home to school districts in Oklahoma City, Edmond and Midwest City, the income gap between A and F schools is even starker. The average in Oklahoma County is A: 29 percent, B: 56 percent, C: 67 percent, D: 77 percent, and F: 83 percent.

The disparity highlights the challenges students living in poverty face when it comes to performance in school, at least performance on end of the year exams, which account for the majority of the state letter grade. It also highlights the potential challenge for low-income families to access many of the state’s highest performing schools.

Moving from a neighborhood with an F school to one with an A school could mean finding a residence where the income level is nearly three times higher.

Again, we know this pretty well. In November 2013, I made a list of factors that correlate to a school’s A-F grade:

Another reader pointed me to this spreadsheet showing all school districts in Oklahoma, their student counts, and the percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. The table also has bilingual student counts, which is information I previously didn’t have. Last week, I ran correlations between school grades (and district grades) and poverty. Yet another reader suggested to me that I run correlations between the grades and poverty, this time only using districts with more than 1,000 students.

Comparison Correlation
All District Grades to Poverty -.52
Large District Grades to Poverty -.80
Large District Grades to Bilingual -.32
Large District Grades to Poverty + Bilingual -.76
Small District Grades to Poverty -.51
Small District Grades to Bilingual -.10
Small District Grades to Poverty + Bilingual -.45

Both factors – poverty and bilingual education – seem to impact large districts to a greater extent. Statistically speaking, there are a couple of factors here. One is that the data for bilingual counts include a lot of schools with none reported. Zeros in statistics skew results (as they do with student grades). Another factor is that there were 131 of the large districts (still a statistically significant sample) and 386 small ones.

My takeaway from this is that while the report cards tell the story of schools’ accomplishments only to a limited extent, and while my analysis from before built on that, there is always more to learn, if you’re willing to unpack the data and find out what is happening. Among our largest schools, we see more variance in socio-economic levels. We also know that urban poverty and rural poverty are not identical.

As always, I should point out that correlation does not equal causation. Nor does it equal forecast. Schools with high poverty rates do sometimes perform well on tests. They just don’t do it with the frequency of schools with low poverty rates. The explanations for this are myriad. Low-poverty schools get more applicants for open teaching positions. They are more likely (based on US Census data) to have parents who are college-educated. They get more parental involvement. The list of reasons goes on and on.

Nor is this simply an Oklahoma phenomenon. As Paul Thomas writes on his national blog, The Becoming Radical, today:

“Bad” and “good” contribute to our coded political and public discourse that reflects our collective unwillingness to do what is required: reform directly education so that all students have the sorts of opportunities that we do guarantee to the most fortunate children among us.

That’s all an A-F Report Card system does. It codes our schools. It labels enough of them as failures to extend the narrative that public education as a whole is failing. And I’ll go ahead and say what you’re thinking: it contributes to white flight.

Asked for his thoughts, Rep. Jason Nelson acknowledged the poverty linkage to the grades, but also advocated for more school choice:

Nelson views this income disparity as a reason to allow a student’s state appointed funding to be used for enrolling in a higher performing school.

“A lot of parents can’t really move from the inner city of Oklahoma City to Deer Creek, and even if they could afford to do it … their support system can’t all move with them to Deer Creek,” Nelson said. “The key is to give them options where they exist today so they aren’t forced to move if they can’t.”

That’s all true. People can’t just buy a house that’s 300 percent more expensive and move. What he doesn’t mention – what education reformers never mention – is that the school with a low grade may still be a good school. It’s also myopic to assume that families from the inner city even want to move to Deer Creek. Some people actually value their neighborhoods, and as an extension, their neighborhood schools. Maybe some would move, given the option. Some wouldn’t though.

Let’s frame it another way. If your kids are in a school with a low poverty rate, something like 20 percent free/reduced lunch participation, and the school gets a B, aren’t you going to wonder why? It rarely happens. Does that mean that every school with low poverty and an A has great teachers? Absolutely not. It’s easy to be shiny when you have resources. That doesn’t mean the teachers don’t work hard, though.

That’s been another one of my great concerns during this age of accountability. We don’t want to make any assumptions based on the letter grades. Some schools with an A are great. Some aren’t. The same is true for schools with lower grades. In most of them, you’re going to find teacher working really hard to help students succeed.

The Oklahoman recognizing that poverty impacts student achievement is like Mary Fallin acknowledging that fracking causes earthquakes. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, but it was obvious to the rest of us for years.

I’m happy for Felder’s coverage, but I now wonder what will follow on the editorial page. There’s long been a disconnect between the paper’s reporters (who tend to treat public school stories fairly) and its opinion writers.

For 2016, we’re still using the A-F Report Cards that hundreds of superintendents, as well as the state superintendent, have completely disavowed. Testing is over for the spring, and report cards won’t come out until this fall. If you want a preview, however, click this link showing current percentages of students served by free and reduced lunches in our schools. This will be pretty close to the final outcome.

On the Turning Away

February 6, 2016 2 comments

Fridays are typically fun times for catching up on Twitter. Take yesterday, for example. While waiting for an appointment, I came across this exchange between Tyler Bridges and Brent Bushey (and eventually Scott Haselwood and me):

On the Turning Away isn’t my favorite Pink Floyd song; it’s my favorite song that Pink Floyd released during my senior year of high school, though. And the lyrics remind me of how our state leaders have impacted public education in Oklahoma during the last several years.

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away

Since 2008, Oklahoma has cut state funding for public education by more than any other state. My god, I don’t know how many times we have to repeat this. All I know is that we will soon get to update our bar charts. As our state treasurer reports, our  revenue situation is just getting worse.

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Oil and gas production is down. This leads to jobs being cut. This leads to people not being able to shop. This leads to another declaration of revenue failure in the coming months.

Whatever your school district has told you they’ve been cut in funds this year by the state, prepare for it to get worse. Much worse.

I’m angry. Yes, I get that oil producing countries in far-off parts of the world have created the market glut that has impacted our economy.

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What I don’t get is where the influx of money was just a few years ago. Right now, when we’re hurting, oil is trading for $30.89 a barrel. In June 2014 – merely 20 months ago – it was at $105.22. In April 2011, it was at $115.76.

Did our state leaders restore funding for education and other core state services during that time? Of course not. They cut taxes on corporations and the rich. The middle class really hasn’t felt that. Again, how many times do we need to repeat that before people understand it?

More Pink Floyd:

It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting it’s shroud
Over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud

As a superintendent who recently conducted a district climate survey (with 400 responses and counting), I can tell you that I hear the calls for smaller class sizes and larger salaries. These are things I want to see happen. When our district faces cuts of millions of dollars next year, though I don’t see that it’s possible. That’s why we need more patron involvement.

It can’t just be educators beating down the doors of our elected leaders. We need parents and community members saying that enough is enough! And before any smart-aleck representative asks back, “How much is enough?” I’ll just let you know that we’re nowhere close. I don’t have a number.

Maybe enough is giving our schools funds to restore the class size limitations enacted over 25 years ago that the state suspended during the recession. Maybe enough is getting Oklahoma’s teachers paid something resembling something. Maybe enough is funding textbooks, technology, and buildings adequately so that districts don’t have to deepen the debt burden to their communities through bond elections – that is, the districts with any sizeable bonding capacity. Maybe enough is listening to the students, parents, and teachers who decry failed accountability measures such as ACE, RSA, TLE, and A-F, and the tens of millions of dollars we pour into preserving them each year.

I don’t have a number. You’re lucky I have my nice words. Just keep adding, and we’ll tell you when you get there.

Let me skip to the end of the song:

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?

Who are the weak and the weary? It’s our students, most of whom qualify for lunch subsidies. It’s their parents, many of whom work multiple jobs just to elevate their household income from the free lunch range to the reduced-price range. It’s our teachers, who feel the lack of funding and respect from the state as intensely as anyone. It’s our support staff, who are often left out of the conversation when we talk about raises. It’s our building principals, who have less time to run their schools because of senseless mandates. And it’s our central offices, who – when we’re working at our best – try to bear the burdens of all of the rules and moving targets thrown at us by the federal and state government, so that the impact on schools is minimal.

What is the coldness? I’d have to say that this describes the words of the Legislature and Governor. Don’t say you support education. You had a chance when times were good, from 2011-2015. You missed it. And now, when things are tough? You’re all voucher this, A-F that. Well A-F that is right!

Look, I know that the Oklahoman wants us to keep the conversation civil. I also can’t forget that the most read post (by miles and miles) on my blog was a guest column written by a pissed off parent. Civil is good. Logical is good too. It doesn’t always change the world. Here’s from the paper this morning, though:

There will plenty of debate this legislative session over education funding, school choice and other issues. Here’s a call for voices on both sides to keep the rhetorical low blows to a minimum. Our concern stems from some of the things written by bloggers at #OklaEd, a site that allows educators to use Twitter to “share ideas, resources and inspiration.” One English teacher attached a graphic to his anti-education reform post that said, “Admitting you’re an a–hole is the first step.” Writing about Education Savings Accounts, an administrator at Sand Springs said, “If you are a parent who wants to use the Bible as your child’s Biology text, ESA’s are for you.” Passionate defense of education and educators in Oklahoma is one thing. But such uncivil discourse does little to help the cause.

First, it cracks me up that they refer to #oklaed as a site. It’s a hashtag. On the Twitters. I shouldn’t be too harsh, though. My own teens often tell me I’m Internetting wrong. Maybe it’s a site if you most recently checked your email from your Earthlink account that you installed on your Windows 98 computer with the disk that you picked up at Wal Mart. Or something like that.

Second, admitting you’re an a-hole is a step. It’s probably not the most constructive place to start a policy discussion, though. Maybe a better way to say it is that if you’ve consistently supported policies to over-regulate public schools in Oklahoma while draining them of funding and blaming all the regulation on the feds and then shown yourself unwilling to loosen those regulations once the feds told us we could, and if you constantly fight to send tax dollars to private schools that will have none of the fiscal or academic accountability as public schools…wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, I was explaining why we shouldn’t call people a-holes. Sorry, I’ll have to come back to that another time. I kind of got off track.

Third, we must be getting to them. It makes me think of two movie scene. First is from The Princess Bride:

“What did this do to you? Tell me, and remember, this is for posterity. Be honest. How do you feel?”

The most civil thing we can do is to be honest. It’s for posterity. We’ve said please. We’ll keep saying please. There is also a time to look people in the eyes and say, “You’ve failed us.” We can’t turn away from that.

The other scene comes from The Shawshank Redemption (of course it does).

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies”

Maybe this is why we stick with education. We know that our kids need us. We know that our colleagues depend on us. Maybe we’re just gluttons. All I know if that I’ll be civil and angry, to the extent that I can do both. And that I’ll take no part in the turning away. After all, it’s not enough just to stand and stare.

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.

Hair of the Blog

January 1, 2016 2 comments

As with the rest of us, our two biggest state newspapers are waking up resolved to find hope for what 2016 will bring. Take this cheerful outlook from the Tulsa World this morning:

Meanwhile, the state Board of Equalization certified a preliminary general revenue projection for the coming budget year that is $900 million less than the year before.

That’s roughly the equivalent of overall ticket sales so far for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Unless creator George Lucas can spare some change, or the price of oil makes a meteoric climb, the new year isn’t going to feel very new. Rather, it threatens to be a rerun of 2015 with further downsizing of an already shriveling state government.

Those who argue that is not the worst thing that could happen, should say that to the face of a public school student or teacher. Ranking at the bottom of the barrel in per-pupil spending for common education is never acceptable, no matter what the circumstances.

On the promising side, Oklahoma has ridden the energy price roller coaster before and always rebounded eventually.

The last line is my favorite. The editorial board is basically saying, We know we’ll see better days. We always have, right? That’s what I call forward thinking. Surely there’s a unicorn out there somewhere!

Still, as usual, it’s better than what the Oklahoman editorial writers have given us this morning. In their 2016 wish list, they have two Thunder-related items, but just one for education: vouchers.

Education Savings Accounts: Status-quo forces in education often claim Oklahoma students’ academic performance will never improve unless huge spending increases are provided. Yet if parents were given the ability to use their child’s per-pupil allotment, as would be the case with Education Savings Accounts, those officials may be shocked by how quickly improvement occurs. ESAs would allow parents to use a portion of the tax money already dedicated to their child’s education to spend on tutoring, online learning, or private school tuition. It’s time Oklahoma lawmakers provide beneficiaries the same flexibility with education funds that they are provided for other government programs, such as food stamps. One size does not fit all students, and it makes no sense to act as though children will receive a better education if they’re assigned a school based on geographic proximity to one’s house rather than based on a child’s individual needs and parental involvement.

This is where that morning-after blurry-eyed effect hurts me. I’m going to have to go through this one sentence by sentence.

Status-quo forces in education often claim Oklahoma students’ academic performance will never improve unless huge spending increases are provided.

I’m glad to see they didn’t use the trite verbiage Education Establishment. Maybe that’s a sign of a resolution they’ve made. Actually, what those of us who teach students and lead districts illustrate is that huge cuts in state aid have hurt our ability to provide services for students. We point out that the state’s abdication of responsibility vis-à-vis funding public schools at a proper level has made providing teacher raises of any significance impossible. This, combined with mandates that create meaningless work for already over-tasked teachers, has driven quality people out of the profession.

We’re not asking for huge spending increases; rather, we want a reversal of the huge funding cuts that we’ve seen since 2008. Let me just point out that for the 2013-14 school year (the most recent available data), Oklahoma districts received less than half of their funding (48.0%) from the state. The rest came from local and federal sources. This continues a 15 year trend that shows no sign of reversing. Year-by-year, the Legislature has been less committed to funding public education, and more committed to regulating it.

School Year % Funding from the State
2013-14 48.0%
2008-09 52.0%
2003-04 53.4%
1998-99 57.1%

Yet if parents were given the ability to use their child’s per-pupil allotment, as would be the case with Education Savings Accounts, those officials may be shocked by how quickly improvement occurs.

Picture0005Actually, we wouldn’t see any improvement, because the voucher pushers in the Legislature and the newspaper also insist that we shouldn’t hold private schools accountable in any way for student achievement. In other words, they want the money, but not the rules.

As for schools, we just get the rules.

ESAs would allow parents to use a portion of the tax money already dedicated to their child’s education to spend on tutoring, online learning, or private school tuition.

As Alex Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jason James pointed out a few months ago, a voucher isn’t going to help the poor families get into private schools to the extent that their supporters insist:

The voucher bill currently on the table, SB 609, would provide benefits to a student who “previously was enrolled in the first one hundred (100) days of the prior school year in an Oklahoma public school district.” In other words, students currently enrolled in private schools wouldn’t have access to the voucher – for now. If 609 passes, expect to see a lot of school-flipping.

Another important consideration is that private schools don’t have to accept everybody. And they shouldn’t have to accept everybody. They have a specific mission, which is why parents choose them. Our mission as a state – as a system of public schools – is to educate everybody who shows up. Given that charge, we do a damn good job, no matter what narrative serves the convenience of voucher proponents.

If voucher supporters truly believe that private schools are better education providers, they need to support doing the schools that would accept voucher students committing to two things:

  1. Accepting all students.
  2. Meeting all state and federal mandates.

Otherwise, this isn’t a serious conversation.

It’s time Oklahoma lawmakers provide beneficiaries the same flexibility with education funds that they are provided for other government programs, such as food stamps.

I’m glad the Oklahoman supports flexibility for how people qualifying for public assistance, such as public school employees, spend their benefits. On the other hand, the paper also supports cuts to the food stamps program.

To be clear, food stamps are a benefit for people living in poverty. Vouchers are a benefit for people in the middle class. Those are the students that private schools would accept. Those are the students whose families could make up the difference.

A food stamp recipient can shop anywhere. The merchant will accept the business because it has cash value. A customer spending food stamps is a paying customer, in their eyes.

A voucher recipient will not have these same choices.

It’s just not the same.

One size does not fit all students, and it makes no sense to act as though children will receive a better education if they’re assigned a school based on geographic proximity to one’s house rather than based on a child’s individual needs and parental involvement.

I agree. That’s why thousands of parents have chosen to transfer their students across school district boundaries. It’s also why I oppose many of the mandates that this paper supports.  We could provide more choices within our arguably-publicly funded schools right now, if the Legislature passed a few simple bills.

  • Replace the EOIs with the ACT.
  • Repeal ACE.
  • Cut all tests not required by the feds.
  • Take quantitative measurements out of teacher evaluations.
  • Create an accountability system that focuses less on testing.

Simpsons_24_10_P1We’re the educators. We would love to focus more on meeting each child’s individual needs. We don’t want to spend another minute preparing our most profoundly disabled students for state tests or the portfolios that serve as their proxy. We don’t want to spend another minute slowing down our gifted kids in classes that continue to get bigger while we prepare the masses for poorly-developed state tests.

The upcoming legislative session is critical. I can think of at least three term-limited legislators who would love nothing more than to pass a voucher bill. Doing so would serve as their springboard into some of the statewide races that will be up for grabs in 2018. Every vote for SB 609 – or anything resembling it – is a vote against public schools.

 

A Blatant Double Standard

December 12, 2015 1 comment

Yesterday’s editorial in the Oklahoman shows the clear intent of school voucher supporters. They want private schools to have the benefits of taxpayer support, but with none of the accountability.

Starting with the first paragraph:

AS lawmakers debate policies giving Oklahoma students greater education choice, including the use of taxpayer funds for private schools, it’s important to keep regulation of those programs to a minimum. Counterproductive red tape only drives providers away and robs students of opportunity.

You read that right; this is the same newspaper editorial board that has argued for A-F Report Cards, tests to determine 3rd grade promotion and high school graduation, college and career readiness standards, and countless other red-tape reforms over the last several years. Now they’re telling us something we already figured out: every bit of that is counterproductive. It robs students of opportunity. The editorial board may be worried about that type of nonsense driving away potential private education providers. My concern is the extent to which it has contributed to driving away public providers.

You mean you want me to meet more mandates for more students with less funding, and continuing decreases to my take-home pay? Where do I sign up?

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Yes, red tape and accountability mandates are just as responsible for driving good teachers away as the lack of raises over the last eight years. But wait; there’s more:

For example, some argue that any private school accepting students with state-funded scholarships should be required to administer state-mandated tests and report results. Yet that requirement can dramatically limit participation of quality private schools. Greene noted state tests can impact a school’s curriculum and instruction.

I have a question for the educators here. Have you ever had students who were so close to getting the point of a lesson, the theme of a story, or the connection between two historical events, and then, for some inexplicable reason, they just don’t have that final moment where it all comes together? That’s how I feel reading this paragraph.

Of course tests impact a school’s curriculum and instruction. They’re the number one reason for many of the misguided decisions that have happened in schools over the last 15 years. If you’ve ever had a child who had to give up music, art, or recess to spend more time on reading and math, blame the testing culture that this very paper has supported for more than a decade. It’s almost as if they are doing everything imaginable to make the public school experience suck while offering up private schools as a pristine alternative.

I have a better idea. Let the teachers teach the kids. They actually know what they’re doing.

I also want to key in on the phrase “quality private schools.” How do the writers define quality? With public schools, they use a misleading rating system based on test scores. Are Bishop McGuinness, Cascia Hall, and Oklahoma Christian School worthy of an A? Maybe. How would we know? They seem like great schools, but we don’t have A-F Report Cards telling us so. If fear of accountability is going to drive away the quality private schools, then maybe that word doesn’t mean what we think it means. It’s why the organized homeschool lobby in Oklahoma seems to want nothing to do with vouchers.

Side note: as of right now, SB 609, which carries the water for vouchers in the 2016 legislative session, only includes private schools. Although that could change at a later date, there’s no reason to think homeschooling language will be added to the bill in the next five months.

“A lot of private schools don’t teach the state curriculum — on purpose,” Greene said. “They have their own vision of what an educated person is, and that’s what they’re teaching. That’s why they’re private schools. They’re alternatives. They’re something different.”

Believe it or not, most of us who work in public education also have a “vision of what an educated person is.” What we’re doing right now doesn’t resemble that vision. What we’re doing right now limits student autonomy and teacher professionalism. What we’re doing now flies in the face of cognitive development. What we’re doing now is borderline malpractice – and it’s all proscribed by policies that non-educators created.

By the way, the words in quotes belong to University of Arkansas professor and frequent OCPA contributor Jay P. Greene. (I know you’re shocked that there would be a connection between OCPA and the Oklahoman.) Here’s more of what he thinks of public education, from his own blog:

Two of the great pillars of our country are equal rights and freedom for diverse beliefs. Neither of these pillars is consistent with a government school monopoly, nor with the educational oligopoly of limited school choice.

A monopoly or oligopoly exists by stamping out the rights of challengers in order to protect the privileges of the powerful. When educational entrepreneurs are denied the right to start new schools on equal terms with dominant providers, all of us lose. A society where the education of children is controlled by the few is a society that doesn’t respect equal rights.

And the education of our children is at the very heart of how we all live out our most central beliefs about life and the universe. Our country can never fully live up to its commitment to freedom for diversity until we undo the monopolization of education. Part of the reason we created the government school monopoly in the 19th century was bigotry and a childish fear of religious diversity. It’s long past time we, as a nation, grew up. Let’s leave those fears behind us, in the nursery of our national history.

Let’s be clear about which institution better protects equal rights and freedom for diverse beliefs. In public schools, we accept all comers. We don’t care what gender or color you are. We don’t care if or how you worship. We accept you if you’re straight, gay, or transgendered. We take students from birth to age 21 with all kinds of physical and learning disabilities. And I’m not just paraphrasing my district’s compliance statement. This is what I really believe. This is what most of us in public education believe. This is who we are.

Public schools embrace diversity. If you want greater homogeneity, look inside the private schools in your community.

Greene also brings us back to the dreaded Blaine amendment. Representative Jason Nelson was on Twitter this morning rattling this familiar cage too.

In case you don’t have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, as I don’t, let me sum it up for you anyway. Those of us who oppose school vouchers must be religious bigots. We believe that public funds should not be used for sectarian purposes.

I haven’t re-read all of my old blogs (or Claudia’s, or Rob’s), but I don’t remember this being the center of our arguments. I don’t remember this being the center of any argument made by the OEA, CCOSA, or the OSSBA, either. No, we tend to focus on the fact that this state does a horrible job of funding the public schools and we don’t want to see the stream diverted to private schools that select their own students and answer to no one (at least not publicly).

We teach all the kids we get. Pardon us for not wanting to share funding with schools that want to teach only those students they deem worthy. Back to yesterday’s editorial:

Similarly, requiring private schools to accept all applicants in order to receive state funds can change a school’s culture and mission. In theory, Greene noted participating Catholic schools could be required to accept students who are virulently anti-Catholic. How does that make sense?

It makes no sense. None of it makes sense. I don’t want to tell the Catholic schools (or schools tied to any other denomination or faith) that they have to accept students disruptive to the way they teach their beliefs. I also don’t want to pretend that these schools have the same purpose as public schools.

As my daughter says, “You do you.”

“The only schools who are willing to do whatever the state tells them they must do are the schools that are most desperate for money,” Greene said. “If you don’t have enough kids in your private school and your finances are in bad shape, you’re in danger of closing — probably because you’re not very good — then you’re willing to do whatever the state says.”

At this point, I’m wondering if the Oklahoman editorial board wrote this or just cut and pasted from the Greene playbook. What I’m reading now is that the writers – whoever they are principally – want precise metrics for judging public schools but apply reasoning such as “probably because you’re not very good” to private schools who would accept any state accountability for funds. Funny, that’s the same logic the Oklahoman typically uses against the Education Establishment when they gripe about us speaking our minds.

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Diligently moving forward, the Oklahoman and Greene turn to direct attacks on public schools:

Public schools don’t accept all comers. Districts typically serve students in a limited geographic area. Since many of the better public schools are in upper-income areas with more expensive housing, this means many schools are effectively off-limits to low-income families. Public schools also routinely decline to serve students with significant special needs. Those students are sent elsewhere.

First of all, I want to thank the Oklahoman for saying what those of us in the Rebel Alliance have been saying all along. Yes, many of the “better” schools are in upper-income areas. That’s not a coincidence, you know. Since the upper income areas tend to have wealthier families, and wealthier families tend to have higher educational attainment in the home, and since their children tend to have  better pre-natal care and nutrition from birth to age five, and since affluent homes tend to have more books and words and vacations and stability and such, it only follows logically that the schools there would be full of students that we couldn’t screw up if we tried.

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On the rest of this paragraph’s point, thousands of Oklahoma students attend schools out of their geographically-assigned district. In fact, I think at least one prominent voucher supporter in the Legislature has children attending school in another district. As for the claim that we send our high-needs students elsewhere, Mr. Greene should probably know that the sending district still pays the bill for these students – and it’s huge. Sometimes the least-restrictive environment (LRE) in which we provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) is much more expensive than what the district receives through special education funding for that student. Then again, maybe you’d actually have to do my job for a few minutes to know that.

Here’s the closing:

Some public school administrators will object that they should also be exempt from testing and accountability requirements. If lawmakers give parents the power to freely use taxpayer funds to put a child in any school, that’s a point worth debating down the road.

But for now, school choice policies should give parents true alternatives — not force private schools to become another version of the status quo.

That’s me: some public school administrator. It’s not that I don’t want accountability requirements. I just want some that make sense. I just want to know that the people who write them into existence won’t insult me with drivel such as this. For us, the status quo has become public education policy crafted by members of two of this country’s “royal” families (Bush and Kennedy) – two people who never spent a day in public education. Nobody should have to live like that – private, public, or homeschool.

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We have over 30 legislators who will serve their last year in 2016 because of term limits. For a few, passing a voucher bill into law would be a legacy accomplishment. It may even be the stepping stone that some want to use moving into the statewide races that will be up for grabs in 2018. The campaign has begun.

Thoughts on Obstruction and Serious Conversation

November 19, 2015 2 comments

If my math is correct, and it usually is, Oklahoma school districts have lost over $900 million in State Aid since the 2008-09 school year. Even if the Legislature could pull a minor miracle and keep funding for schools flat for the 2016-17 school year, the total revenue decline would be more than $1 billion in just eight years.

The funny thing about losing that much money is that you miss it. It hurts. The only thing that hurts worse is when you realize it isn’t coming back. That’s when you have to act boldly.

To me, that is what we’re seeing with Governor Senator OU President David Boren’s penny sales tax plan. Born of necessity – because frankly, nobody is proposing any other credible solution – it stands as the only option on the table. Sure, the Oklahoma’s Council for Pushing ALEC – or whatever OCPA stands for – came up with an alternative. It includes several one-time solutions – such as selling off art collections (that the state doesn’t technically own) for teacher raises.

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Here’s a fun fact for people who’ve never had to cobble together a school district budget and worry about paying thousands of teachers and support employees: you can’t use one-time funds for raises. What are you going to do the next year if nothing to match those funds is in place?

Then again, why would we expect a group that has invested decades trying to destroy public education to bring anything serious to the conversation? I only bring them up because they carry water for and to certain obstructionist legislators who share their voucher-centric agenda. They’re part of the conversation, whether they have any business being in it or not.

I haven’t yet written about the Boren proposal for a couple of reasons. First, I have a lot of friends and colleagues working in municipal government. I fear that a state penny sales tax will limit their ability to continue generating local revenue through their own initiatives. We need well-funded schools, but we need well-funded city governments as well. It’s not a trade-off for me. They’re both critical needs.

Second – and maybe this should be first – is the fact that over the last ten years, our state government has methodically reduced the tax base by passing income tax cuts (that really didn’t benefit the middle class or the working poor), increasing tax credits for corporations, and pushing nebulous amendments to the state constitution that limit growth in ad valorem collections.

As Oklahoma Watch points out, some who are critical of the Boren plan feel like the state is replacing income taxes that are progressive with  sales taxes which are, by definition, regressive. As Boren points out, however, “Our choice is to either do this, or nothing.” In other words, we can lament the fact that our elected leaders knew they were tying their own hands, or we can propose a solution.

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That billion dollar projected hole in next year’s state budget reflects the billion dollars in lost state aid that schools have seen over the last seven (going on eight) fiscal years. Reversing this trend through legislative means is a feat that is against all odds. While I’d welcome some teamwork and help from our elected leaders, until that happens, why not let the people decide if a penny sales tax is the best way to help public education.

Then again, one of the OCPA’s side ventures has filed suit – against the reigning State Teacher of the Year, among others – claiming the Boren plan violates the Oklahoma Constitution. In short, they claim the initiative constitutes a “textbook example of logrolling.” By logrolling, the plaintiffs mean that the proposal violates the state’s single issue rule. The fact of the matter is that the proposal is for one thing – a penny sales tax, and what should be done with the proceeds of that penny. The plaintiffs know this. Then again, as I said, they have a long, long history of trying to block all things that would benefit public education.

What they forget, however, is that public schools are responsible for teaching 90 percent of students in this state. What they forget is that parents and communities support their local schools and the people who work in them. What they conveniently try to forget is that those parents and communities are sick and tired of budget cuts and teacher shortages, and that voters increasingly realize that the school districts didn’t create these problems.

Oh, and 2016 is an election year. Every House seat and half the Senate seats are up for grabs. I recently read that more than 30 seats will be impacted by term limits. If incumbents have opponents, they all can be. If incumbents throw up their hands and say there is nothing they can do to prevent cuts to education funding, then we should see more challengers.

With all that said, one conservative Oklahoman I respect tremendously is Phyllis Hudecki. She has been – among other things – Governor Fallin’s first secretary of education. She has been involved with the Oklahoma Business Education Coalition for more than a decade. She recognizes the problems that shrinking education budgets and stagnant teacher pay have brought to our schools. She published a strong editorial in this Sunday’s Oklahoman saying as much:

Our teachers are leaving the state in droves. In fact, schools began this year with about 1,000 teacher vacancies and a record number of adults in classrooms without teacher preparation.

Teachers haven’t had a state-funded raise in nearly a decade, which is, in part, why the state ranks 48th in teacher pay. We have a moral and economic imperative to fix this now.

While money is not the only answer for all that ails our schools, it is certainly a large part.

The Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition recently commissioned a study of teacher attrition and pay in Oklahoma, Texas and comparable jobs in the private sector. The study showed that teacher salaries in Oklahoma are about 16 percent lower than teacher salaries in Texas and 28 percent lower than median salaries for similar workers in Oklahoma’s private sector.

Nibbling around the edges and tinkering with smaller changes may save a little, but it will not catapult funding to the levels needed now.

The only comprehensive funding plan on the table is the ballot initiative to add a penny sales tax.  The measure would provide approximately $426 million to increase teacher salaries.

Ideally, the upcoming legislative session would include serious movement towards rolling back tax credits that really haven’t proven to stimulate the economy. Failing that, we have the Boren plan. At the least, Oklahoma voters should have the right to decide its merits – and to do so without obstruction and misinformation from right-wing lobbyists.

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