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They came, they saw, they puked

October 30, 2016 Comments off

In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock, Oklahoma has faced budget shortfalls each of the last three years, and they just keep getting bigger. This has created tension at our Capitol – you know the one getting the $245 million in repairs.

That’s not what this post is about. I’m glad the Capitol is being restored. Here’s what Governor Fallin said in her state of the state address back in 2014:

In fact, this building has become a safety hazard. We are doing a great disservice to our state and its citizens by allowing the Capitol to crumble around us.

The exterior is falling apart, to the point where we must actually worry about state employees and visitors – including teachers and students on field trips – being hit by falling pieces of the façade.

The yellow barriers outside are an eyesore and an embarrassment.

The electrical system is dangerously outdated.

And guys, the water stains you’ve seen on some of the walls downstairs? I have bad news for you. That’s not just water.

Raw sewage is literally leaking into our basement. On “good” days, our visitors and employees can only see the disrepair. On bad days, they can smell it.

Based on a Fox 25 story from last week, some of those same terms could be appropriate in describing the state’s budget negotiations process. As Phil Cross explains:

Documents obtained by FOX 25 shed new light on the difficulties of filling the $1.3 billion hole in the state’s budget. They reveal the governor’s office began talking about the budget long before the session kicked off. Doerflinger said while formal negotiations did not start until 2016, the talks started shortly after the 2015 legislative session closed.

Emails from the governor’s staff showed the session began with optimism. Even when House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) told the Tulsa World there was no chance for a teacher pay raise during the session, the Governor’s Chief of Staff Denise Northrup wrote “challenge accepted…gov remember this for the meeting with Inman soon.”

Ultimately though, no teacher pay raise happened in the session. By May, a staff member for the governor’s office wrote, “Not very grateful,” in an email to Northrup containing the statement of Oklahoma State School Board Association on the end of the session saying schools would continue to struggle under the budget agreement. Northrup replied, “jerks.”

I don’t find much of this surprising. The governor’s staff didn’t like the push back they received to their budget ideas. And maybe they were upset that Inman didn’t think their ideas would produce a teacher raise, but show me where he was wrong.

Remember, the Republican party can pass any piece of legislation they wanted to without a single Democrat voting for it. If the governor vetoed it, they could override her, again, without a single Democrat supporting them. That’s called a supermajority. Governor Fallin has had that luxury for the six years she’s held the office. It’s a luxury Fallin expects to retain for her last two years as governor as well.

There’s more:

“In this budget, there are things that you don’t like,” Doerflinger said, “and in this case that was one that made my stomach church but at the end of the day the governor has to make a decision as to whether all the other things that were accomplished in this budget.”

The stomach churning was not confined to Doerflinger’s office. Upstairs, in the governor’s office Northrup looked at the final agreement which included an addition that was never part of any negotiation. She simply wrote, “puke.”

I love this kind of insight. Knowing that there would be no budget deal otherwise, the governor’s office accepted something they didn’t want. It made them want to puke.

dodge ball threw up in my mouth.gif

I couldn’t bring myself to use a Linda Blair gif.

Yet when the OSSBA feels the same way, they’re jerks, right? Right.

During the last six years, I can’t even count the number of financial decisions our state has made that have made me feel that way. Just for fun, though, here are a few:

In 2012, Oklahoma voters approved SQ 766, which now costs the state tens of millions of dollars annually in property tax collections. This impacts our cities and our schools, and it deepens the budget deficits we face in this state. It benefits large corporations, most notably AT&T. The measure passed 65% to 35%, because all we heard was “tax cut.” Never mind that it doesn’t help most of us.

In 2014, the Legislature passed an income tax cut that continued to cut into state revenue. It is likely that the legislation responsible for dropping the tax rate in Oklahoma to 5 percent this year will cause it to fall even further in 2018.

In 2015, the Legislature passed HB 2244, which threw motor vehicle tax collections into a spin that created huge imbalances in state aid to school districts. On top of that, the Oklahoma Tax Commission misinterpreted the Legislature’s intent for how those collections should be distributed. A judge’s decision against the OTC now means that some corrective action will be taken, which will impact districts’ budget planning.

In 2016, school districts throughout the state faced cut after cut after cut, but only once half the year had already passed. Then during the summer, the same people who wanted to puke because of all the jerks announced that they had accidentally cut $141 million too much from state agencies. They even tried re-branding it a surplus and attempted to talk legislators into having a special session (like the one they worked to avoid in May by holding their nose and accepting an imperfect product).

Meanwhile, the governor’s biggest cheerleaders (besides Oklahoma’s energy industry) – the editorialists at the Oklahoman and the think tank double-speakers at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs – spent the year alternating between trying to convince teachers that they were actually making good money and contriving strategies to use one-time funds (such as the surplus that wasn’t) to fund raises that wouldn’t be sustainable. One of the OCPA guys even suggested that we should illegally spend bond money to pay salaries. If he thinks that idea will float, then he’s probably going to buy OU’s Tuscan monastery.

Making the burn of bad decisions worse, North Dakota has managed the spoils of their energy industry and created a real budget surplus. That could have been Oklahoma.

Yeah, I still want to puke.

Puke shirt.png

We vote in nine days. Maybe you’re still on the fence about SQ 779 – the penny sales tax that would generate raises of at least $5,000 for teachers. Or maybe you’ve been reading propaganda that says more than half the money will go to higher education. That’s a lie. No matter how many times you read it on the Internet, it’s still a lie. If you want to read the legal language and get back to me, feel free.

If the people who are running things at the Capitol make you want to puke, you still have a chance to support pro-education candidates. A few changes here and there, and our collective stomachs might rest a little better.

That’s about it for things that make me want to puke – well, as long as I don’t get started on the Halloween overtime that is our presidential election.

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Vote Yes, or Else #SQ779

October 2, 2016 1 comment

I’m not sure that I’ve come out and said it, but will be voting yes on State Question 779. Right now, this is the best solution on the table to help public education. It has an upside, and it has limitations. It also has context.

As David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute wrote back in January, we have spent a decade digging this hole:

Repeated cuts to the state income tax made since the mid-2000s are one of the most significant reasons for an ongoing financial crisis that is eroding important public services and threatening Oklahoma’s economic well-being.

Acute teacher shortages, college tuition and fee hikes, critically understaffed correctional facilities, longer waiting lists for services, and lower reimbursement rates for medical and social service providers are among the harmful consequences of chronic budget shortfalls.

Prior to 2004, the top income tax rate in Oklahoma was 6.65 percent. That’s not what the average household paid. It was the top rate.

Various state revenue triggers have since lowered the rate to 5.00 percent. Additional triggers will continue lowering the rate to 4.85 percent by 2018. Again, those are the top rates. Most Oklahoma households were unaffected by these cuts. The later cuts have barely affected the majority of Oklahomans.

What’s the big deal? It will have taken 14 years to complete this slide.

Again, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Hemingway quotes:

gradually-then-suddenly

He was either describing the Oklahoma economy or exponential curves. Maybe both.

The political premise for cutting taxes is that doing so will stimulate the economy. I’m still looking for the evidence of that. Meanwhile, the median household in Oklahoma, making about $50,000, has seen a tax cut of about $230 annually. It’s something – not a game changer, but it’s something.

In addition to cutting income taxes, our state has also in recent years cut taxes on new oil and gas production. This is why Oklahoma has seen continued declines in public education funding. Prior to the industry downturn of the last few years, other energy-producing states, such as Texas and North Dakota, were increasing their investment in public education.

Not Oklahoma. Not even when oil was booming a few years ago. We missed our opportunity. Missed badly.

Last Wednesday, I attended a town hall meeting moderated by Fox 25 in Oklahoma City. The topic was SQ 779.

Panelists for the state question were Amber England of Oklahoma Stand for Children and Shawn Hime of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. Panelists against it were Steve Agee, Dean of the Meinders School of Business at Oklahoma City University and Dave Bond with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

England and Hime reiterated the fact that our state leaders have had the chance to raise teachers’ salaries and have failed miserably. Agee made the point that the tax is regressive because it hits poor families harder than it impacts the wealthy. Bond made the point that passing the state question may falsely tell the Legislature that the job is done, sort of like establishing the lottery has. These are all good points. I don’t disagree with any of them.

I won’t repeat all talking points from the town hall, but I do want to respond to one thing said by Agee and one thing said by Bond.

What I will never understand is how Fallin has failed to make this a legacy issue for the first six years of her administration. The governor is Republican. The Senate has a Republican super majority. The House has a Republican super majority. Every single elected statewide office is held by Republicans. When I hear any of our state leaders talk, they say teachers deserve raises. Yet nothing happens.

By the way, I’m not blaming the Republican Party. Teachers were underpaid when Democrats controlled the various branches of government, however you want to enumerate them. Maybe they didn’t go 10 years without seeing raises, but they were still among the lowest-paid educators in the country.

I don’t doubt that Governor Fallin wants to raise teacher salaries. I would also agree that if she could do so, it would punctuate her time in public office. Unfortunately, that punctuation mark would be a question mark, rather than an exclamation mark.

Regardless of what she accomplishes in the next two years, our state, and more specifically, our education system, will take years to recover from the hole we’ve dug. How many teachers have quit the profession or left the state? Do you think they’ll all come storming back because of a raise? Many are settled into the next phase of their lives and won’t look back.

According to the OSSBA, school districts in Oklahoma eliminated over 1,500 teaching positions in 2016 because of the state budget collapse. In spite of this fact, 53% of the superintendents who responded to their survey said the teacher shortage is now worse than it was a year ago. Last year, the Oklahoma State Department of Education approved over 1,000 emergency teaching certificates. This year, the state is on pace to fly past that number.

Not to be overly-dramatic, but if SQ 779 fails, we’re going to see the problem get exponentially worse. I know too many people who see this as their last hope for staying in education to believe otherwise.

While I see Agee’s point and don’t entirely fault him for wanting the governor to find an alternate solution, that’s no reason for me to have hope. Going into the 2016 legislative session, we all knew that momentum for the penny sales tax was building. If Fallin and the Legislature weren’t motivated enough by this knowledge to find an answer in February or May, I have my doubts about whether they can agree to one now. Hope is a good thing. It’s not a blind thing, though.

Bond, on the other hand, kept making the case for how the state already has plenty of revenue to raise teachers’ salaries. He predictably blamed administrative bloat. He said we have too many non-classroom positions. He even threw out the fact that the University of Oklahoma owns property in Tuscany. Twice. When Hime mentioned to him that it was a gift, he went on some strange rant about a Corvette.

None of that really shocked me. This did:

Yes, he really said that. He also said that nobody is going to sue a school district for using bond money to pay teachers just because it’s unconstitutional.

Side note: this is why I never approached the moderator. I pictured myself going off on a rant rather than forming a question. Nobody was there to hear me.

My guess is that one of the OCPA’s many tentacles would be the first to sue a school district misusing money. I also can imagine the headlines in the Oklahoman. No doubt they’d be full of compassion and understanding for our plight.

Along with hosting the town hall, Fox 25 also ran a Twitter poll asking how followers planned to vote on SQ 779. Only 145 people responded, but 59% of those said yes.

Hopefully we’ll see a similar result on November 8th. Whatever Oklahoma decides will send a strong message to our leaders about what this state values. It’ll send one to our teachers too.


If you missed the town hall and would like to watch it in its entirety, Fox 25 has it online.

 

 

 

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OSSBA on the Testing Problems

July 18, 2013 Comments off

In case you missed this one (which I did earlier in the week), here is the Oklahoma State School Boards Association’s take on the testing debacle, as written by Jeff Mills:

It is very disappointing that our State Superintendent, Janet Barresi, has decided to cast the blame on someone else for this year’s testing failures and for future testing issues.  Superintendent Barresi was quoted in The Oklahoman expressing outrage over the testing failures and CTB/McGraw-Hill openly acknowledged that the failure was on their end, not the districts.   CTB/McGraw-Hill said, “we regret the impact…(of) system interruption” and “have made changes to correct the situation[.]” referring to the disruption of 3,000 Oklahoma students and 30,000 Indiana students on just the first Monday and Tuesday alone of federally mandated testing.  NBC News, May 1, 2013.

The testing company stated that the outage in Indiana occurred because “our simulations did not fully anticipate the pattern of live student testing.”  Superintendent Barresi was quoted saying, “I am outraged that our school districts are not able to administer assessments in a smooth and efficient manner.”  Spokesperson at that time for the SDE, Tricia Pemberton, stated, ” CTB/McGraw-Hill said it did not have enough ‘hardware space’ for the number of students who went online.  They assured us that if we continue in the fall, they will test it properly to make sure we don’t  have this problem again.”  NBC New, May 1, 2013. CTB/McGraw-Hill clearly admitted the problem was their fault, not the schools.

So why the change of heart?  After all, someone who oversees a $22 million budget should have ownership of a $27 million dollar contract.  On the contrary,  Superintendent Barresi was quoted saying,  “I had zero involvement in the entire process [testing and contract] from start to finish personally.”  The Oklahoman, May 20, 2013.  Finally, Superintendent Barresi  said “(The testing vendor) crashed for two days because of server problems, but almost every bit of it was due to district issues.  I’m not pointing fingers, but it is the reality.”  Tulsa World, July 3, 2013.

The elected office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction is vital to the growth of Oklahoma students.  It requires accountability and should be taken seriously by a leader that accepts responsibility when things go wrong, seeks to correct mistakes, and praises others for their hard work.

Time and again educators and school board members have offered their assistance to Superintendent Barresi only to have those requests ignored.  When these same people finally get fed up with not being taken seriously,  they take matters into their own hands and commission studies such as the report done recently by the Oklahoma Education Association on the problems associated with CTB/McGraw-Hill and spring testing and the A-F Report made by researchers at OU and OSU at the request of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and the Cooperative Council of School Administrators.  But these efforts are viewed as attacks on the State Department of Education rather than  helpful, collaborative  tools to be utilized by the SDE and are rebuffed as “whining” or outright ignored.

We will continue to advocate for Oklahoma school board members and the children they represent.

-Submitted by Jeff Mills, Ph.D., executive director, Oklahoma State School Boards Association

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.

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