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.”
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Next year, Oklahoma public schools will be required to conduct even more testing as part of the Common Core Initiative, a new curriculum with more rigorous standards. States were given the option to participate, and Oklahoma and most others supported the initiative.
“I like the standardized curriculum of Common Core,” which focuses on “less rote memorization and more on critical-thinking skills,” Ballard says. “But we need to be careful about giving so many tests tied to the curriculum.”
Secretary Hudecki says she is “very excited” about Common Core’s more intensive focus on English, language arts and math.
“The standards are fewer but go into much greater depth in each subject” than the current curricula, she says.
Common Core standards also will “be voluntarily implemented in about 45 other states,” Hudecki says, “so we will have the ability to gauge how our students are doing compared to other states.”
However, Jenni White, president and co-founder of Restore Oklahoma Public Education (ROPE), a grassroots organization concerned with curricula, says she and other ROPE board members are wary. They cite the lack of local control Oklahomans have had in the development of Common Core.
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), an organization comprised of representatives from 22 states, created the tests that will be used as part of Common Core. The new program will be overseen by the federal Department of Education, White says.
“Oklahoma has really abdicated a majority of its local control over its educational standards,” White says. “This will make it very hard for local districts to determine what curricula work best to meet the needs of the local student population moving forward.”
‘Making an impact’ despite the challenges
Until Oklahoma educators and legislators arrive on the same page with education funding, the lesson of the day is how to do more with less.
Pearson and other Oklahoma teachers have no choice but to grapple with the daily challenges that grow each time the public education budget and teaching and support staff positions are cut.
“It’s amazing the deal Oklahoma taxpayers are getting,” he says. “The money going into schools is significantly less than it has been, but people are still getting quality services.”
Despite Pearson’s job becoming more difficult, he insists students — at least, those in his classroom — are getting a good education.
He tells them stories and plays African drums; he recently purchased several more for his growing classes with a grant from the Assistance League of Tulsa Betty Bradstreet Fund. He teaches the kids to read music in just five designated minutes per day. Tough concepts are best taught in small chunks; “it just takes persistence,” he says.
So, what does it take to face low wages, more work and larger class sizes — and still be a successful teacher in Oklahoma’s public education system?
“Everything you’ve got,” Pearson says. “You have to wake up knowing you’re going to fight battles, knowing you’re going to be somebody’s parent, not just their teacher. You have to wake up knowing your heart will be broken every day, (but also) knowing you’re making an impact.”
What can parents do?
Seven years ago, Jenks Public Schools parents scratched their heads, concerned about growing class sizes, increased testing, and shrinking arts and music programs. When they asked questions, they received the same vague answer: it’s a state Capitol thing.
If the answers were at the Capitol, then they decided to go there. Enter the Tulsa-area Parents Legislative Action Committee, a grassroots effort to get parents talking and learning more about public education — all while making their voices heard in the legislative process.
During the school year, Tulsa-area PLAC holds monthly forums on topics such as testing, funding and how Oklahoma public education is changing at the state and local levels. During spring, when the state legislature is in session, they take parents on a once-a-month day trip to the Capitol.
After the group’s first year, they joined with parents from Union Public Schools. Since then, the volunteer organization has grown rapidly, absorbing northeast Oklahoma suburban school districts (including Sand Springs and Broken Arrow, as well as Tulsa).
“It’s exciting, and I think parents are realizing they can be a part of the (public education) discussion on the front end,” says Melissa Abdo, a Tulsa-area PLAC coordinator, “instead of showing up at school in the fall and seeing that something’s different.”
With drastic funding cuts since 2008, our children’s public education demands our attention, Abdo says.
“There are people on the ends of these policies — they are kids,” she says.
Since the all-volunteer Tulsa-area PLAC took off, several other concerned parent groups have sprung up across the state.
All of the groups’ goals are simple: lobby on behalf of your own children. Make sure your legislators hear your voice. Write to your representative and senator. Send them emails. Invite them to monitor testing. Show them how the decisions they make in Oklahoma City affect children in classrooms around the state every day.
At first, stepping into political waters can be intimidating.
“This is a big hurdle for a lot of parents,” Abdo says.
That’s why the Tulsa-area PLAC educates interested parents about the legislative process and the current legislative climate.
“Parents don’t want to call (their legislators) without understanding first,” she says.
Once parents are updated, Abdo says, “They can be the ones educating the legislators. Not a lot of legislators come from an education background.”
Going to the Capitol to talk to your representatives is only scary the first time, Abdo says.
“When you get there and do it once, you feel really kind of empowered,” she says.
On springtime field trip days to the Capitol, parents learn how to call their legislators off the floor to talk about their concerns.
“If you take time out of your day, then make sure your senator and representative are there, and see them in person,” Abdo advises.
Abdo and other parents who have been to the Capitol can help other parents craft a respectful, informative message for legislators.
“It doesn’t take parents long to find their voice,” Abdo says.