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Just Vote

August 22, 2016 1 comment

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Oklahoma is in desperate need of some people who know the difference between good public policy and a kick in the head. That’s why we have so many active races for the Legislature, including 13 run-off elections in which many of you can vote tomorrow.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen different friends go back and forth about a person’s civic obligation to vote. I feel strongly that everybody should be as well-informed as possible and show up on election day. That means, of course, that many of you are going to show up and cancel out my selections. That’s fine too. I can live with not getting my way all the time.

It’s also fair to say that I’m more passionate about some races than others. In 2014, I put a lot of effort into writing about why we needed a new State Superintendent. I didn’t pay attention to the Legislature that much. I didn’t even chime in on the governor’s race until late, not that I think my thoughts there made much difference.

I believe one reason many people stay away from the polls is because there are just so many races. In how many have you really researched the history and positions of the candidates? You can look at party registration, but if you’re like me, sometimes it doesn’t matter. I regularly vote for Democrats and Republicans, and I often wish for more choices than that. Few people I know are straight-party voters, or so they say.

In general, I’m looking for people who support public schools. I want to know that the candidates I choose understand that there’s nothing conservative about gutting state services to the point that roads and bridges crumble and schools have to lay off thousands of teachers.

And to be clear, there’s a good chance that if you say things like this…

For years now we have been taught wrong. Our schools teach atheism and call it science. We are taught a revisionist view of American history, erasing our rich Christian heritage. We’re told that Christians don’t belong in the culture.

SD 41 candidate Paul Blair

…then I won’t vote for you. Come to think of it, I hope most Oklahomans – especially public school teachers – wouldn’t vote for somebody with that mindset. It shows ignorance and  a complete disrespect for what we do in our schools.

Other than the Blair race, the one that really interests me is one in Tulsa County, SD 25, featuring Lisa Kramer and Joe Newhouse. I can’t find anything damning about Newhouse, and Kramer as said she’d be willing to listen to a voucher proposal if public schools were fully funded (and the vouchers included some real accountability). It’s become one of the nastiest contests in the state, though.

In the end, it’s a sitting school board member who also happens to be an accountant and who hasn’t taken dark money from shady pro-voucher groups. As my friend at Blue Cereal Education put it:

Consider the value of having at least one person in state government who knows how math works, or who may just be old-school enough to think her job is to fix problems and serve constituents rather than cater to entrenched power – even if that power currently resides in the darkest recesses of her own party.

Her party, by the way, controls the House, the Senate, and all statewide elected positions in Oklahoma. In spite of what they insist, they can’t put their heads together and raise teacher salaries. No, the best they can do is pass a bill that makes all of us get lovely new license plates based on a drawing that somebody left on the butcher paper at a mall Garfield’s back in the mid 1990s.

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This was a way for the state to raise revenue without raising taxes, since – and again, in spite of one party controlling every major office of the government – they don’t have the votes to do it any other way.

This is what I’m talking about. We get the government we deserve because we don’t get more involved when these people are running.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting with a reporter from Education Week who came to Oklahoma to talk about the teachers running for the legislature. He met with a few candidates, as well as some of my fellow activists. What I noticed is how our little movement here is not the only one nationally. The reporter summed up our collective influence, though:

When legislators earlier this year tried to pass through a bill that would expand the use of taxpayer funded vouchers, the group flooded their inboxes and lobbied them on Twitter under the hashtag #oklaed. Despite a robo call from Gov. Fallin to voters in support of the bill, it failed.

“What we’ve seen is a strong bipartisan movement in favor in public education. And the voices have been heard by legislators,” said David Blatt, the executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based bipartisan think tank.

No matter what happens tomorrow and in November, #oklaed has made a difference already this year. The magnitude of our impact is still to be determined. The number of educators and concerned parents who get to the polls will determine how strong it is.

 

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Two Things: Enrollment Increases and #GiveItBackOK

January 12, 2016 1 comment

Quickly today, I want to draw your attention to two things.

First is that public school enrollment continues to climb. Superintendent Hofmeister’s office released this statement yesterday:

The number of students enrolled in Oklahoma public schools increased by more than 4,000 in 2015, continuing an annual upward trend.

A total of 692,670 students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade at the start of the school year, an increase of 4,370 over the 2014 total of 688,300 and 33,055 more than in 2010.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister emphasized that the state should be prepared to continue serving a growing student population each year.

“Once again, Oklahoma schools are educating more students than ever,” Hofmeister said. “While it’s not a surprise, it is important to remember that statewide enrollment increases every year. Given the current fiscal reality and the teacher shortage crisis, many schools started 2015 ready to add additional students to their rosters with few new resources. We need to plan for this trend to continue in the future and do everything we can to minimize the negative impact on students.”

Districts record enrollment every year on Oct. 1 and report the figures to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Currently, Oklahoma has 516 public school districts and 1,795 school sites, including 14 charter schools not sponsored by a district.

Well, that’s about half of the statement. The release also included several graphics, including this one showing how public school enrollment has continued to increase since 2009.

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Please remember that Oklahoma schools have more mandates, more students and less per-pupil funding than they did in 2009. Don’t let anyone get away with telling you differently.

Also, if you’re any kind of a data nerd at all, you might enjoy the data tables the SDE has provided showing state, district, and site numbers.

The second thing is that I want to say thank you for the thousands of positive responses to #GiveItBackOK, which a small group of rebels – including myself – concocted Saturday night. I also appreciate the coverage that several local TV stations have given the movement, as well as Nour Habib’s write-up for the Tulsa World.

Sand Springs Assistant Superintendent Rob Miller and several other state education advocates, including Mid-Del Superintendent Rick Cobb, launched a grass-roots campaign on social media last weekend encouraging people to give back the money they’d get through a new 0.25 percent reduction in Oklahoma’s income-tax rate.

Miller said the idea for the campaign, which they’re calling #GiveItBackOK, came about spontaneously as he and others expressed their frustration about the fiscal shortfall and the midyear cuts that schools will have to deal with.

“All the while, the Legislature has moved forward with an income tax reduction at a time when the state doesn’t have enough money to support its core services,” he said.

Miller said the tax cut will result in a minimal return of money for most people — for an average teacher, it’ll be a return of about 4 cents a day, he said.

We’re not asking people who can’t afford to donate to schools to give. We’re not asking people to give their entire tax return to schools. We’re not even saying you need to write a check to your district’s general fund. There are countless ways you can give.

I say countless ways, but Claudia Swisher has started a list.

  • Donate to the school district lunch program. In trying to alleviate cuts to schools, the OSDE cut our state’s matching funding for the school lunch program by 30.28%. Check with your district office and see if you can earmark your donation to hungry kids.

  • Donate to your school’s general fund…that’s what schools use to buy paper, pencils, supplies, printer ink. Those funds will take a huge hit in order to continue funding vital services.

  • Ask your child’s teacher for a wish list of supplies and buy all of them and more

  • Ask the music and art teachers if they could use some help. My granddaughter’s art program funds itself by selling candy bars between classes…and that was before the revenue failure.

  • Join your PTA or PTO and donate to their efforts.

  • Does your district have a school foundation? Donate!

  • School libraries have been hurting for years, and this will be hard on them. Donate to the library and invite the media specialist to get the books students have been asking for.

 

Giving feels good, and it can help teachers know that you support them. It doesn’t begin to solve the state’s funding problem, though. Then again, step one is admitting you have a problem.

Late yesterday, after this movement began gaining traction, the governor’s office released a statement about criticism over the latest tax cut.

Most of the state’s revenue decline can be attributed to the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry and the 70 percent decline in the price of oil in the past 18 months. We’ve lost about 12,000 jobs from the energy sector decline, and that has an effect upon our sales tax, our income tax, our use tax, our motor vehicle tax and certainly the gross production tax on oil and gas. Modest, incremental income tax reductions are not the problem.

“The income tax cut’s budgetary impact is $120 million in the upcoming 2017 fiscal year, which is only a little more than 10 percent of the projected budget hole. It’s a fact, the state would still have over an $800 million budget hole even if that tax cut hadn’t taken effect.

“Up until the energy downturn, Oklahoma had the fourth-fasted growing economy in the nation. This tax cut will prove its worth in the long term. Tax policy is long-term policy and over the long term, a lower tax burden is good policy and the policy the voters have asked for in Oklahoma. If Oklahoma wants to attract and retain good jobs – rather than losing them to neighboring states – we must improve our tax climate.

Not all elected officials are all in on the tax cut, however. So far, two legislators have pledged to participate in the #GiveItBackOK movement.

Supporting schools, for most Oklahomans is an easy choice to make.

Oh, and if there would be a third, very location-specific thing this morning for all of the Owassoans who are registered voters, please do your civic duty. Vote today. They don’t call these special elections for nothing, you know.

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