F for funding public education
Oklahoma ranks 48th in spending for public education. TulsaPeople explores the challenges caused by low state funding and what needs to happen to move our focus “back to school.”
(page 2 of 3)
Only so much to go around
Overall, Oklahoma has weathered the recession far better than other states and also has recovered better economically, increasing tax revenue 3.8 percent from 2011-12. Yet funding for public education is still relatively low.
“The money is back, and it’s perplexing to me that we are not coming back and funding (schools)” at a higher rate, Ballard says.
Former Oklahoma Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki, who spoke to TulsaPeople before leaving office, describes the bleak picture of slashed funding from a different perspective. She oversees all aspects of Oklahoma education, from elementary to vocational and technical schools.
Hudecki, who is a former teacher and school administrator herself, acknowledges the steep budget cuts have caused “consternation and frustration” among education professionals and parents. However, the 2014 budget agreement is at least an improvement over years past, she points out.
The budget “reflects an increase for education, reversing the trend from the past few years,” and more than 50 percent of the state’s total budget is dedicated to education, Hudecki says. (The allocations include funding for higher education and career tech education.)
“As costs have increased and state revenue fluctuated, reductions in dollar amounts dropped, but the percentage still remained just over 50 percent,” she says. “Just like our family budgets, there is only so much available, and some tough decisions have to be made.”
More students, fewer teachers
With Oklahoma’s public education system operating on a shoestring budget, limits on class size have been suspended because schools don’t have the funds to meet them. Since teaching positions have been cut, there is not only a shortage of teachers, but also a growing student-teacher ratio.
Statewide, the number of students per teacher has increased from 13.7 in the 2007-08 school year to 16 in 2010-11, according to figures analyzed by OPI.
Realistically, for classes like Pearson’s, the ratio is more like 1-to-40, he says. Many teachers today have nearly 30 students in a classroom, allowing less time for individualized attention and requiring more time to manage student behavioral problems.
More than 4,000 of Oklahoma’s elementary and secondary school jobs were lost between 2009 and 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor. This means larger class sizes; fewer classes offered; and less support staff, including counselors, librarians and others.
Oklahoma educators are typically paid less than those in most other states. For example, starting pay for a first-year teacher in Oklahoma is $31,600, while the national average hovers around $35,672, according to the National Education Association (NEA).
The states with the highest starting salaries are New Jersey ($48,101) and New York ($44,370), which allocate three and 17 times as much money, respectively, to public education as Oklahoma. Of our surrounding states, only Missouri pays its teachers less, with a starting pay of $29,857, the NEA reports.
Ballard, who began his education career by teaching reading to Coweta junior high students in 1972, says it’s a shame many TPS teachers can’t survive solely on their salaries. He has recognized some of them serving pizzas at Hideaway on a weeknight or working the counter at Braum’s or waitressing at Te Kei’s on weekends.
With a secondary education certificate, Ballard explains, a new college graduate could go to work at many larger companies and receive a higher starting salary and better benefits than TPS offers.
The lackluster pay means a shortage of good teachers, especially in the areas of science, technology and math, as well as in special education.
Secretary Hudecki echoes Ballard’s concerns.
“Our teacher salaries are low,” she admits. “While we have some very talented and dedicated professionals in the classroom, if we are to attract and retain more talented teachers, the issue of compensation will have to be addressed.”
High-stakes testing, unfunded mandates
Simultaneously, educators must deal with the pressure of unfunded expectations. While state legislators pass bills requiring more high-stakes testing and accountability, they haven’t approved enough money to fund and follow through on these new mandates, according to local experts.
For example, a requirement beginning in 2014 will retain third graders who do not pass a reading test. However, last year the state nixed $6 million for students who needed remedial reading help. A reading instruction program, Literacy First, also lost $3 million in funding.
Oklahoma also implemented nine end-of-instruction tests, called ACE — the Achieving Classroom Excellence Act — for graduating seniors that went into effect for the 2008-09 school year. The statewide effort was designed to raise expectations for student achievement in Oklahoma public schools. Students must pass at least four of nine ACE tests to graduate.
Paradoxically, the Oklahoma Legislature cut funding for a remediation program for students who needed extra help to pass the tests.
Ballard is bothered by cuts to remedial help while the legislature raises the punitive stakes.
“If a child is behind, we need to make sure there’s an effective teacher,” he says. “We need to be very intense with instruction. We may need to bring in high-intensity tutoring or summer school. (Yet) all of those funds have been cut.”
Each new mandate also increases administrative burdens on an already overworked system. Lawmakers now require Oklahoma schools to maintain and submit data for tests and grade calculations. And the testing is only becoming more extensive, something Ballard often hears parents protest.
About 77,000 tests will be given to Tulsa-area students during the 2013-14 school year, he estimates.
“There’s too much testing going on,” the superintendent agrees. “We do need to know where students are … we want them to do well on these tests, but we have really gone overboard with the amount of testing.”