Why public education is everyone’s problem
I didn’t completely realize the impact of the huge cuts in Oklahoma’s education budget until this August. At the first faculty meeting of this school year at Ponca City High School (where I rejoined the teaching staff after a two-year sojourn at Owasso High), we waited until after the start time. I assumed the principal was delaying to make sure everyone had arrived. The principal then started the meeting and, apparently reading my mind, joked, “I was waiting for the rest of us to get here, but this is it!” He laughed ironically as I realized that the faculty, which had over 100 teachers in it when I joined it six years ago, was now down by about 25 percent.
Oklahoma has the largest percentage of change in spending on education in the nation, and it isn’t for the better. That faculty meeting was a visual representation of the 22.8 percent budget cut Oklahoma public education has taken in since fiscal year 2009. The cut resulted in huge class sizes and less individual attention. If you know any student or teacher in Oklahoma public schools, you won’t be surprised when I say we had many classes with 45 or more high school students in them this school year.
Earlier this month, Ponca City Public School District’s superintendent, Dr. David Pennington, stated: “Public schools in Oklahoma are dying on the vine.” He backed that up with some depressing numbers: if our school district were funded at the same rate per pupil of the 2008-09 school year, we’d have $200 million more in funding due to increased enrollment. Other departments saw substantial increases. The transportation department, for instance, has seen a $198 million increase since 2009.
Further, morale among K-12 educators is at an all-time low. If your boss suddenly required a 25 percent increase in your workload, added performance assessments you have only some control over (a.k.a. TLE) that could result in your termination, and hadn’t given you a raise in seven years, would you start looking for another job or retire early? Large numbers of my colleagues, as many as 70 percent at one school site, have done so in the past couple of years.
In the event you’re not familiar with the TLE, or Teacher Leader Evaluation, here’s the bottom line: We have been told that, as of next school year, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on his/her student’s standardized test scores. Standardized testing puts a great deal of pressure on teachers, administrators and students. Funding is only one part of what must change, and soon.
Interestingly, my students’ English standardized test scores rise and fall depending on where I move, despite the fact that I’m the same teacher teaching the same subject. From 2010-11 to 2011-12, the percentage of my students with passing English III EOI (end of instruction) scores rose 8 percent! The main difference? Ponca City has many students living below the poverty line, while Owasso does not. Many teachers know that if they want to keep their jobs, they should flock to suburban districts where parents have more resources.
Why should people without kids currently in Oklahoma public K-12 schools care? I have noticed that some parents whose children are either homeschooled or in private school ignore the plaintive cries from public educators because they think the problem doesn’t hurt their kids. I suppose they are right.
• If a town’s public school has a low grade on the A-F school report card, so that new businesses and industries shy away from putting down roots in that town, that won’t hurt them.
• If the local public schools can’t afford to hire enough teachers and have 60+ students in a class, inevitably producing graduates who are ill-prepared workers, which forces businesses in their town to move to where there is a more qualified workforce, that won’t hurt them.
• If the public school in their town can’t afford to pay the teachers of electives, so that there are no longer athletic events, competitions and concerts bringing visitors and their money to town, that won’t hurt them.
There is a crisis in Oklahoma education. Our legislators haven’t gotten the message that less funding, unreliable standardized tests, and an evaluation system that can be punitive for even the best teachers must not continue.
I’ve not written about the negative side of teaching because I love my career. But, as the situation drastically worsens, I find I can no longer be silent. The public education crisis will affect our children as well as our local and state economies now and for years to come. Educators and citizens alike must rally at the state capitol on March 31st. Even if you don’t consider yourself a person interested in politics, this is the time to get involved.