Oklahoma Schools Struggle with Teacher Shortage Despite Cutbacks

Oklahoma Schools Struggle with Teacher Shortage Despite Cutbacks, Survey Shows

Oklahoma Teacher Shortage 2016Oklahoma school districts are trying to fill more than 500 teaching vacancies as a new school year begins despite eliminating more than 1,500 teaching jobs since last school year, according to a new survey from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

The combined impact of budget cuts, too few prospective teachers and teachers opting for other careers or out-of-state teaching jobs is even worse than a year ago when schools had about 1,000 vacancies after eliminating 600 teaching jobs. This year’s vacancies do not include positions filled by teachers holding the more than 300 emergency teaching certificates state education officials approved in May, June and July.

School districts also have eliminated more than 1,300 support staff positions since last school year. That includes teaching assistants who helped schools deal with a difficult double whammy: inexperienced teachers and growing class sizes.

“People who have never trained a day as a teacher are now responsible for teaching elementary school students how to read and do math. We have high school students who can’t take Spanish because their school can’t find a teacher. We are hemorrhaging teachers to Texas, Arkansas and Kansas,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “This is what it looks like when a state fails its schools and its children.”

OSSBA conducted the survey during the first two weeks of August. Districts representing about 83 percent of the state’s public school enrollment participated. The key findings:

  • Districts reported 542 teaching vacancies as of Aug. 1.
  • Districts reported eliminating 1,530 teaching positions since last school year.
  • Districts reported eliminating 1,351 support positions since last school year.
  • More than half of school leaders say hiring teachers was more difficult this year compared to last year.
  • Half of districts expect to increase class sizes.
  • The vacancies are widespread, regardless of the district’s size and location and the subject area.
  • More than half of districts anticipate needing to seek emergency teaching certifications to fill vacancies.
  • Thirty-four percent of school leaders said their schools likely will offer fewer courses this school year.
  • Special education, elementary, high school science, high school math and middle school math are the most difficult teaching positions to fill.
  • School leaders are deeply worried that the overall quality of teaching applicants is having a detrimental impact on student achievement.
  • Nearly all of the state’s largest school districts are projecting class sizes of 26 or more students in middle and high school.
  • More than half of school districts are projecting elementary school class sizes of 23 or more students – above the 20-students-per-class limit in Oklahoma law that’s been waived because of the state’s budget struggles.

Budget cuts were the primary factor in districts’ decisions to eliminate teaching positions. Even if that hadn’t been the case, many district leaders expressed doubt at their ability to find certified teachers to fill the positions because not enough new teachers are seeking to fill jobs vacated by more experienced teachers who are leaving the profession or leaving for work in another state.

In addition to the more than the 300 emergency teaching certificates already approved for this school year, the state Board of Education is expected to consider as many as 350 more emergency certificate applications when it meets Thursday.

Hime said solutions for the state’s teacher shortage crisis remain unchanged from previous years. Oklahoma needs a long-term funding strategy for public education that meets three key goals:

  • Enables a meaningful increase in teacher compensation that’s regionally competitive and empowers schools to hire and keep outstanding teachers.
  • Provides resources schools require to meet the needs of today’s students and students of the future.
  • Rebuilds the teacher pipeline so it’s filled with capable, passionate educators, possibly through the launch of a bold, statewide scholarship or loan forgiveness plan for future educators.

“With every year that goes by, we make it more difficult for educators to do the job that we’ve hired them to do – provide every child with a high-quality education,” said Mike Mullins, OSSBA president and a longtime school board member for Sand Springs Public Schools. “I’m humbled and grateful that Oklahoma’s educators continue to rise to the challenge, but there’s no doubt our failure as a state to properly invest in our children and their education has consequences.”

Sand Springs has struggled to find certified teachers in core subject areas and described finding special education, high school science, middle school science and high school math teachers as very difficult. The district is projecting 23-25 students in elementary school classes and 26 or more students per class in middle school and high school.

The story is similar in Ponca City, where Executive Director of Human Resources Shelly Arrott said the district struggled to fill all its vacancies but likely was successful because the district cut 24 teaching positions at the secondary level and sought emergency teaching certificates to fill 10 teaching slots.

The district moved six paid days of teaching training from the summer to the school year to reduce costs. Arrott said the change resulted in a financial hit to support employees who now have fewer contract days. Support employees are being encouraged to take on other extra duty assignments like becoming a crossing guard to help bridge the financial gap.

School leaders offered mixed experiences with emergency teaching certificates, noting such teachers typically require more support than other new teachers and many are not returning for a second year. Amber Fitzgerald, executive director of human resources and communications for Enid Public Schools, urged the state to improve its alternative certification process by focusing more on classroom readiness.

“We are approached by a plentiful number of people with bachelor’s degrees who are interested in teaching,” she said. “Right now, the alternative certification process focuses on earning a piece of paper, not preparing for the job in an expedited way.”

Gregg Garn, dean of The Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma, is no stranger to Oklahoma’s teacher shortage crisis. He struggles with recruiting students into the profession. Making the problem worse is the fact that fewer students who graduate from the college are staying in Oklahoma to teach. And as enrollment in colleges of education declines and an increasing number of teachers seek alternative paths to the classroom, he said K-12 students are shortchanged.

OU has continuously raised its standards for admission to the college of education and now the average ACT for students entering the college is a 25, Garn said.

“We want to ensure students will have the best and brightest leading classrooms,” he said. “When the emergency certification pipeline is so wide, it has consequences for student learning. So many of those who come to the classroom through alternative paths are in and out in the blink of an eye. We want people who are going to be great and make a positive impact on thousands of students over their career – not just people who are going to be there for a semester or a year.”

School districts bordering other states face a particular challenge with recruiting and retaining teachers. Seventeen teachers have left Miami Public Schools in northeastern Oklahoma over the last year, leaving first-year Superintendent Jeremy Hogan scrambling to fill vacancies. The district eliminated 11 positions, has increased class sizes and is offering fewer courses.

Dozens of students typically take a third-year Spanish class, but Hogan eliminated the class because he couldn’t find a teacher. The inability to offer a competitive salary and to provide teachers with adequate classroom resources are major recruiting challenges, he said.

“We’re having to put a puzzle together with pieces that don’t match. We have missing pieces,” Hogan said. “We love kids, and when you can’t give what you feel is your best, it hurts. We’re doing a disservice to students.”

 

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How Much is Enough?

By Christy Watson

School finance is complicated. Many outside the public education sector have only a general notion of how schools are funded. The mechanism is fuzzy even for many of those working in schools.

So when educators and public education advocates start talking about the need for more money, the question almost always comes back: How much is enough?

Let me start with just a few reasons that illustrate why I’m sure the current level isn’t enough.

  • Oklahoma started the school year about 1,000 teachers short — even after eliminating 600 positions compared to the year before.
  • To compensate, Oklahoma has issued more than 1,000 emergency teaching certificates, leaving tens of thousands of Oklahoma children in classrooms without a fully qualified teacher.
  • In 2005, the Legislature passed Oklahoma’s Achieving Classroom Excellence law aimed at improving student achievement. It addressed graduation requirements, academic standards, testing and remediation for struggling students. The state Education Department estimates full funding at almost $39 million; actual funding is about $8 million. That’s only 20 percent of what’s needed, yet the expectations on schools and students to meet the law’s requirements are unchanged.
  • A few years ago, Oklahoma’s legislators enacted the Reading Sufficiency Act to ensure Oklahoma third graders could read at grade level before moving on to fourth grade. State education officials estimate the full cost of successfully implementing the law at $12.6 million; actual funding is around half of that.
  • Oklahoma’s per-student funding is terrible relative to other states. We’re last in our region and among the worst in the country at investing in the education of our children. And it’s not because our children need less. Oklahoma’s percentage of students needing special education services is higher than any state in our region, and only five states have a higher percentage of children who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

I also know on a very personal level why it’s not enough. In February, my son’s third-grade teacher sent out a text with a lengthy list of supplies she needed for her classroom: pencils, spiral notebooks, folders, paper, etc. Off I went to Target to fill the classroom closets because it’s what I can do.

At my daughter’s middle school, parents are talking about a fundraising strategy to pay for supplies and equipment for excellent teachers who want to incorporate more hands-on learning in their classrooms — items the school could buy if it had the money.

How much is enough?

Oklahoma would have to spend nearly $1.3 billion more a year just to reach the average per-student investment of other states in our region. That would raise the per-student spending from its current level of $8,851 to the regional average of $10,744. Even if we wanted to just bump up one spot on the regional list and displace Texas, it would cost more than $750 million annually.

These are big dollars to talk about in a year of a $1.3 billion shortfall. That doesn’t mean we should ignore this huge gap in education investment and talk about it another day. I’m not OK with the idea that students in surrounding states have $30,000 or more invested in their education throughout the course of their school years. I don’t think most parents or business leaders think that’s OK, either.

How much is enough?

Isn’t the answer clear?

  • When the best possible teacher is leading every classroom.
  • When teachers have the resources they need to create engaging learning experiences for every child.
  • When schools have the resources to support children who have special needs and those who have fallen (and even started) behind.
  • When teachers aren’t begging for basic classroom supplies.
  • When Oklahoma parents like me can stop wondering why state leaders have decided my children are worth less than those in other states.

I’d really like an answer to this question: Why aren’t my children — and yours — worth more?

Watson is OSSBA’s communications director and the mom of two public school students.

 

OSSBA President: I’m Saying Yes. Will you?

By Mike Mullins
President, OSSBA Board of Directors 

When the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration launched For the People: A Vision for Oklahoma Public Education more than three years ago, we really didn’t know where the project would lead. What we knew for sure is that a reactive approach wasn’t producing much-needed support for our schools, teachers and
students.

Top-down “reforms” were coming fast and furious. Despite good intentions, many of the ideas weren’t rooted in what we know about the art and science of teaching. Other ideas were poorly implemented and thrust upon schools without funding needed to be successful.

At its core, For the People was designed to lead public education advocates out of the land of negativity. With a focus in seven key areas, For the People offers myriad recommendations aimed at producing students who are fully prepared for life beyond high school. We knew then, as we do now, that resources are key. Schools will struggle to reach great heights for all children as long as policymakers low-ball the funding needed to achieve great results.

When I was asked to join the committee supporting “Oklahoma’s Children – Our Future,” a penny sales tax proposal for public education, I didn’t hesitate to say YES! For the People is about solutions, and a long-term funding plan for education is one of the key recommendations. A funding plan is also one of OSSBA’s top legislative goals.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now criticism of the proposal. No plan is perfect. OSSBA’s board of directors voted to endorse the proposal, but only after lively discussion. Still, the decision was unanimous. Like many board members across the state, I have a sense of urgency about our state’s public education system.

We have so many success stories within the public education ranks. Our students are achieving great things despite limited resources within their schools. However, it’s unrealistic to keep asking our teachers to do more with less. That funding is not keeping pace with growing enrollment is fact. That Oklahoma is losing the competition for teachers to other states and professions is fact.

The proposed sales tax is expected to generate $615 million annually. More than $427 million of that would be dedicated for school districts, with the bulk funding a significant and long overdue teacher pay raise.

In For the People, we asked school board members, administrators and other public education advocates to say yes to a new vision for public education that’s based on solutions.

The sales tax proposal fits that criteria. Even better, the proposal could help fund many of the initiative’s recommendations, particularly related to teacher recruitment and retention. We know ensuring a high-quality teacher for every child is absolutely critical.

I’m saying yes. Will you?

Mullins serves on the Sand Springs Public Schools Board of Education.

 

What’s Your Vision

By Shawn Hime

I know that must seem like a pie-in-the-sky question. This has not been the year anyone in education hoped for or imagined a year ago. School district leaders went into the 2015-2016 school year with cautious optimism. By the time January rolled around, revenue failures began dominating the headlines and decimating school budgets.

Public education in Oklahoma is woefully underfunded; the teacher shortage, growing class sizes and lack of resources are evidence. Underfunding makes the job of providing a high-quality education for all students more difficult but no less important.

This is a difficult time to dream. The teacher and staff layoffs at many schools are demoralizing — for those let go and those left behind. Districts will start a new school year with less money compared to a year ago despite having more students. Schools will become even more reliant on their communities to help fill critical gaps, even though communities suffer, too, amid employee downsizing.

But as I think about the nearly 700,000 children in our public schools, I’m convinced there’s never been a more important time for local districts to engage the community and dream together about the future. There’s never a wrong time to tackle important questions: What are your community’s academic goals for students? What knowledge and skills are most valuable? What do school buildings of the future look like, and what’s the role of technology? How do we recruit and retain the best teachers and administrators? What are we doing well, and where are opportunities for growth?

The answers to these types of questions create a shared vision and can be transformed from dreams to a plan for the future. The results are important:

*The vision becomes the district’s guidepost, driving financial, staffing and programming decisions even in a budget crisis.

*Engaging the community encourages ownership of the vision and empowers community members to become more involved.

*Community members who better understand the district’s strengths and challenges and who are invested in the district’s success are positioned to become powerful advocates — both locally and at the state Capitol.

Over the last several months, I’ve seen this play out in a powerful way in Duncan. Last fall, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association partnered with the K20 Center at the University of Oklahoma to launch the Continuous Strategic Improvement service. This new offering is an outgrowth of For the People: A Vision for Oklahoma Public Education, the two-year effort to create a unified vision for schools with heavy emphasis on district-level transformation.

Duncan was the first school district to launch its CSI initiative. Educators, school board members, parents, business leaders and other communities spent several months reviewing survey responses related to the planning effort, studying student achievement data and dreaming about the future. They answered two key questions: Where do we want to go and how do we get there?

I encourage you to read Duncan’s strategic plan at www.ossba.org/csi. Just a few highlights include the district’s plan to phase in standards-based grading, a greater focus on STEM areas, aligning teacher training with strategic goals, developing a teacher mentor program, increasing technology and conduct a facility review related to maintenance, safety and the ability of current facilities to meet academic needs.

Wagoner Public Schools also recently completed its CSI initiative, and the final report is available on the OSSBA website. Strategic planning is also under way in Clinton and Sayre.

The excitement in these communities as they imagine the future is a reminder our students can’t wait for an economic turnaround; this is their time to learn and grow. Be visionary. Dream big. Students are counting on us.

You can learn more about OSSBA’s Continuous Strategic Improvement service at www.ossba.org/csi.

Summer 2016

FY17 Budget Agreement Statement

Statement from Shawn Hime, Executive Director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, on the state budget agreement:

“We appreciate the challenge Gov. Mary Fallin and legislative leaders have before them in drafting the budget and are grateful they have agreed to shield public schools from additional cuts. The reality is even with this agreement, schools will continue struggling with a severe teacher shortage, growing class sizes and shrinking educational opportunities for students. The significant cut to Oklahoma’s world-class career technology centers will affect thousands of students.

“While we are thankful to state leaders for prioritizing public education, this year is evidence Oklahoma desperately needs a long-term funding plan to improve teacher pay and ensure schools have the resources to offer rich educational opportunities for every student.

“Education is the greatest investment the state can make. Every community, every business and every Oklahoman must be part of a long-term solution for properly funding education.”

Survey: Schools Struggling with Budget Decisions Amid Financial Uncertainty

budget-impact_webMore than 100 school districts are considering a four-day school week or fewer school days as they cope with state funding cuts that also may force districts to cut more than 1,000 jobs and increase already large class sizes, according to a new survey of Oklahoma school officials.

The Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration conducted the survey in late March to identify districts’ budget-cut plans for the current year and next year. Schools have suffered more than $50 million in budget cuts since January and even deeper cuts are anticipated for the coming school year.

Leaders at CCOSA and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association said the survey results underscore the need for state leaders to quickly finalize the education budget and are calling on lawmakers to do so before the end of April. Both organizations appreciate House Speaker Jeff Hickman’s attempt to cap next year’s education cuts at no more than 5 percent of current funding levels, while hoping for a smaller cut.

Timing is key so school leaders can accurately plan for cuts and protect classrooms as much as possible. Districts must begin the process of layoffs by the end of April in order to satisfy state laws regarding the employment of education employees.

“This devastating budget situation will cause this generation of students to suffer lost opportunities,” said CCOSA Co-Executive Director Ryan Owens. “School leaders are making life-changing decisions for employees, students and their families, and they’re being forced to do so based on estimates.”

“For many school districts, this isn’t a temporary situation,” said CCOSA Co-Executive Director Steven Crawford. “The choices school leaders are being forced to make will fundamentally alter many schools and permanently disrupt local communities.”

Shawn Hime, executive director of OSSBA, said school districts want to budget conservatively, but many districts will be required to lay off administrators and teachers. Timely budget information will allow districts to hold layoffs — and increased class sizes — to a minimum.

“If districts lay off too many teachers because they don’t have accurate budget information, Oklahoma may lose those teachers forever to the private sector or another state,” Hime said.

More than half of Oklahoma school districts educating more than two-thirds of Oklahoma’s student enrollment responded to the survey. The survey found:

  • More than 1,000 Oklahoma school employees could find themselves out of a job next year, as districts lay off or choose not to rehire teachers, administrators, support employees and choose not to fill vacant positions.
  • Districts are quickly depleting their cash reserves to pay this year’s bills and to cushion the blow of next year’s anticipated cuts.
  • More than a dozen districts expect they will be unable to pay all of their bills this school year.
  • A dozen districts may be forced to consider closure, annexation or consolidation next school year.
  • Two-thirds of districts surveyed have enacted a hiring freeze for the current year and will do so again next year.
  • Thousands of educators will find their take-home pay reduced next year as districts reduce or eliminate extra duty pay for teachers who take on extra assignments.
  • Many districts are reducing employee benefits.
  • More than half of districts surveyed have cut or eliminated field trips this year and plan to do so again next year.
  • Dozens of districts are reducing or eliminating arts and athletic programs.
  • Dozens of districts are reducing or eliminating advanced courses, foreign language offerings, summer programs and will not buy textbooks.
  • While more than 100 districts are considering a four-day week, other districts are trimming the school calendar by either starting the school year later or ending earlier.
  • Click here for a complete list of cuts districts are considering.

Many districts have been trimming their budgets for years as state funding has fallen or stayed flat despite rising costs and increased enrollment statewide. Class sizes already have been creeping up both because of budget concerns and an historic teacher shortage. District leaders say even larger class sizes and fewer class offerings will be the most noticeable effects of next year’s budget cuts.

Moore Public Schools

“Over a decade ago, we were forced to cut programs and have never been able to restore them,” said Moore Superintendent Robert Romines. “For years, we’ve been trying to protect classrooms and instruction from cuts. There’s nothing more we can cut that’s invisible to students and patrons.”

Moore expects to cut as many as 50 positions and is trimming administration jobs. The district also is scrapping its centralized enrollment center and moving that task back to school sites. The district will remain in compliance with federal special education laws, but also will cut back one-on-one services it provided to some special education students.

“If we just knew what the cuts were going to be, that would help. We know it’s a moving target for lawmakers, but we have to make our decisions now,” Romines said. “We need solid numbers, and we need to be sure we won’t be getting another mid-year cut next year when we really can’t adjust.”

Kiowa Public Schools

Kiowa Superintendent Rick Pool said his students will notice a difference once budget cuts are enacted — and the cuts are likely to result in lower student achievement. For five years, the district has had a full-time reading specialist who monitors the reading level of every elementary student and provides one-on-one attention to those who are behind.

To save money, the specialist will spend half her day next year as a classroom teacher. Pool said that means only students who are most at-risk will receive the extra attention. “We won’t be able to provide that extra help to those kids who are on the bubble and that scares us,” he said.

Grove Public Schools

Grove Superintendent Sandy Coaly quickly checks off the cost-saving measures under consideration for the coming year: modified bus routes, at least a dozen fewer teachers, elimination of some sports, cutting 10 days off the school year and slimmed-down academic offerings.

Coaly said the district’s semester-long ACT preparation class has been popular and effective, as evidenced by the daily announcements of seniors who have been accepted to college. That course is on the chopping block. So, too, is a popular independent science research class and AP Biology.

“This is not the conversation we want to have. We need to find ways to do more for our students, not less. Curriculum-wise, we’re taking a step back in time,” Coaly said.

She’s grateful the Grove community has stepped up to help fill in gaps over the last several years with fundraising, but it’s not enough to offset the severe decline in state funding.

“I keep telling my principals that we will always find a way to make it work — and we will. But I’m just sick to my stomach thinking about this backward step we are taking.”

Coaly said accurate financial information from the state Capitol would help tremendously as her district considers what cuts to enact for next year. The goal, she said, is to cut as little as possible even though increased class sizes and reduced academic offerings are unavoidable.

Duncan Public Schools

In Duncan, the district expects to absorb several administrator, teacher and support positions through attrition. The district is restructuring its employee benefits, capping the cost of substitutes and is pursuing other cost-cutting strategies. School board President Eric Davis said the district cut the family and consumer sciences program this school year, combined an English and reading teaching position and will discontinue driver’s education.

“We haven’t had to make as many cuts as some other districts, but it’s really difficult when you don’t know what the budget is going to be,” Davis said. “We want to make good decisions and minimize the impact on students as much as possible.”

Jones Public Schools

Jones Superintendent Carl Johnson is hopeful the students in his district can go at least another year before the pain of budget cuts becomes obvious. A second-grade teacher position likely will be saved after city officials said they’d consider waiving half the district’s utility fees next school year. City approval is expected next month.

“Our city recognizes what a tough time this is, and how important these decisions are for our students,” he said. “We are grateful for a community that is willing to pull together.”

Johnson is taking a 5 percent pay cut, and the district’s principals also will have smaller paychecks next year. The district is discontinuing its lease for buses and will put its older buses back on the road — a move he calls “a little bit scary.”

The district trimmed the number of school days this year because he was losing teachers to another nearby district with a shorter school year. The school year will get even shorter next school year, and he plans to completely shut the district down for a week in August to save money. Those moves means the district’s support staff — already the district’s lowest-paid employees — will take a financial hit because they’ll be paid for fewer days.

While students may not much difference, teachers undoubtedly will. The district will not buy middle school or high school textbooks next year and some software licenses won’t be renewed. Johnson said he’s advised teachers they’ll have to find other ways to provide high-quality instruction.

Madill Public Schools

Madill Superintendent Jon Tuck has eliminated $900,000 in salary and stipends over the last five years. He expects the district to absorb three to four support employee positions for the coming year and reassign a district-level administrator to a school site.

“We have a lot of administrators, teachers and support staff doing multiple jobs, which means they have a lot more work and students are receiving less individual attention,” Tuck said. “Right now we’re just in flux in terms of what we actually need to cut. That’s tough.”

Oktaha Public Schools

Oktaha moved to a four-day school year this spring. For next school year, Superintendent Jerry Needham said the district is planning to reduce a junior high principal position, two certified teachers and 13 support positions. The district also cut the number of contract days for the remaining support employees and eliminated junior high softball and baseball.

“We are balancing budgets on the backs of students with increased class sizes, curriculum loss and the loss of school days,” Needham said.

Fort Gibson Public Schools

Fort Gibson Superintendent Derald Glover said the future of several positions and programs are dependent on final budget numbers from the Legislature. The district is considering reducing its summer math and reading remediation program for elementary students and eliminating a popular early childhood program that allows high school students to work with 3-year-olds and learn about child development.

“At this point when you don’t have final budget numbers, you have to learn toward eliminating programs,” he said. “I hate that because it affects so many children.”

Read our compilation of news stories on school budget cuts.

Download the graphic.

ESA Statement

Statement from Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, on announcement HB2949 and SB609 will not be heard:

“I appreciate members of the House and Senate for choosing not to move forward with such divisive bills. Budget cuts and the teacher shortage crisis demand that state, business and education leaders work together with parents on a long-term funding solution for public schools. That’s the conversation our nearly 700,000 students in public schools need us to have. No child should go without a high-quality teacher, and every school must have the resources necessary to provide a rich educational experience for all children.”

OSSBA Statement on Budget Cut

March 3, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Christy Watson
Communications Director, OSSBA
405.528.3571 | 405.821.3209 (cell)
[email protected]

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, issued the following statement about today’s budget cut announcement:

“Today’s budget announcement means schools will lose another $93 per student – a total of $158 less per student than schools budgeted for at the beginning of the year.

Now is the time to get serious about a long-term funding plan for public education that will ensure a high-quality education for Oklahoma’s nearly 700,000 public school students.

Students and their families deserve a commitment from state policy leaders to halt conversation around new mandates, vouchers and any other policies that will add costs or divert resources away from public schools.

Our per-student education investment in Oklahoma is dead last in the region and one of the worst in the country. We have a historic teacher shortage, class sizes are increasing and schools are cutting courses. Simply put, our classrooms are in crisis.

Education isn’t a partisan issue.  The budget decisions looming over the next few months will affect our children, our communities and our state for years to come.  There’s no margin for error. We must work together to protect our students and their education.”

Accepting Responsibility for Our Children and Our Schools

By Christy Watson 

Notoriously bad. Often unsafe. Those children. Those schools.

Seeing those phrases on paper last week from a group tied to the State Chamber of Oklahoma to justify school vouchers left me wondering whether to be angry or cry. I opted for both.

Can we have a conversation about OUR schools and OUR children without using shameful — not to mention inaccurate — labels?

Words matter. We’re too at ease with the idea that we can call schools failing and not imply that the children and adults inside them are failures. The academic distinction is far removed from reality. And it’s even worse when adults who have power, influence and means suggest that abandoning OUR schools is a solution to helping OUR vulnerable children.

I’ve been in the homes of some of our city’s most impoverished families. Some of their lives are chaotic and difficult for me to relate to, but they are doing the best they can with the information and resources they have. They are fighting huge personal battles. Families know school is important but its importance is relative to other challenges — keeping the lights on and food on the table.

My seventh-grade daughter has a cousin of the same age in Kansas. To date, Kansas has invested about $24,000 more in her education than Oklahoma has in my daughter. That’s appalling.

But the children who suffer most from that sort of gap are those who most need help. Talking about producing tomorrow’s workforce is reality for business owners. Let’s also talk about how that only happens if we meet the needs our children have today.

Our children living in difficult circumstances have significant academic disadvantages. Research shows time, social safety nets, extra in-school and after-school support for children and their families, high-quality teachers and high-quality principals can overcome those disadvantages.

Vulnerable children aren’t receiving more of what they need now because for far too long, we’ve focused on shortcuts. I mean “we” in the literal sense. Teachers who work with vulnerable children have long known better, but they may be the only ones immune from shouldering at least a bit of blame.

We all have to own our role. We did this to our children and our schools. Some thought we could test our way to a better future for our children. Others thought a new program — take your pick from the thousands available — would do the trick. Others are guilty of inaction and not listening.

The main advantages private or homeschool offer children are small class size and more individual attention. We can offer that in Oklahoma’s public schools if we stop inventing reasons, throwing out business terms and twisting data to justify less investment.

Our children should be able to get what they need at the public school down the street. If they aren’t, it’s on the adults in our community to get together with educators and do the hard work to change that. Our children and our schools are our responsibility. The only failure I see is a notoriously bad unwillingness to accept that responsibility and do the hard work.

Watson is communications director at the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and the mother of two children in public schools.