State Question 801: Why I’m Voting No

Last week, Governor Fallin announced that she was adding State Question 801 to the November ballot.  This measure would amend the state constitution to allow districts to use local property taxes (called ad valorem) for school operations instead of just for buildings and related expenses.  The idea behind this proposed change is that districts can use this money to fund increases in teacher pay.  Sounds great, right?

Nope.  There are many problems with this proposal and I’ll go through a few of them below.

  1. State Question 801 represents a failure of leadership and allows the state Legislature to shirk their responsibility to adequately fund Oklahoma schools.  It is the Legislature’s responsibility to “raise appropriate funds for the annual support of the common schools” (Article XIII, Section 1a of the Oklahoma Constitution).  Appropriate funds include adequate salaries for teachers– a standard not yet met even with the recent salary adjustment that began August 1.
  2. This measure will also potentially exacerbate existing inequity between low-income and affluent districts.  More affluent districts with buildings in good shape may have more in their building funds to allow them to raise teacher pay.  We already see that affluent districts are able to recruit and retain teachers with more experience and more training.  Districts who serve larger low-income populations have fewer applicants for positions, hire more teachers without any preparation, and lose more teachers every year.  If affluent districts are able to pay more on top of the other amenities of working there, it will hurt students in less affluent districts when the most qualified, experienced teachers flock to higher paying districts.  Sure, this is great for students and families in districts that increase pay (including, probably, where my kids go to school), but what about the students left behind?
  3. Amending the Oklahoma Constitution in this way does not provide districts with any additional money– only the ability to use the money they already have for different purposes.  The Oklahoma Policy Institute has a great blog post explaining this.
  4. The ability to use ad valorem funds for teacher pay puts teacher salaries in direct, local competition with other pressing needs of districts.  Imagine a superintendent or school board weighing the choice between increasing teacher pay and paying for facility repairs.  Consider asking your kids’ teachers if they would want their pay to be in competition with fixing leaky pipes or updating the playground.  I suspect the teachers I know would say no.

If SQ 801 passes, I imagine the state Legislature will declare their work on education funding done and try to ignore #oklaed again.  Let’s not give them the satisfaction.

Common Misconceptions about Oklahoma School Funding

Recently I received an e-mail from my state Representative that included misconceptions about school funding in our state.  As I read the Opinion pages of statewide papers and discuss the walkout with friends, colleagues, and strangers, I often hear similar misconceptions repeated.  Below, I address a few of the common misconceptions I have heard over the past few weeks.

Teachers should complain to school districts about their pay.  School districts set their own salary schedules and could pay teachers more.

Yes, school districts set their own salary schedules and some districts in Oklahoma do already pay more than the state-required minimum.  However, if schools in Oklahoma do not have enough money for extracurricular activities, AP classes, copy paper, etc., how can they justify using their already limited funds to pay teachers more?  Paying teachers more out of the inadequate funds appropriated by the state legislature would only take resources out of classrooms.

Updated facilities and technology in schools indicate that districts have more than enough financial resources.

New classrooms, 1:1 initiatives (a laptop or other device for each student), and new athletic facilities exist in Oklahoma despite inadequate state aid because communities pass local bonds.  Bonds, by law, can be used to fund only certain expenditures which include textbooks, technology, and facilities.  These funds cannot be used for teacher salaries (at least not at this time—there is a bill that proposes to change this, which is a very bad idea and a topic for another blog post).  When you see a new elementary school being built in your town or your student brings home a ChromeBook, it is likely because your community passed a local bond.  Oklahomans have generally been very supportive of bonds, enabling facilities and technology to keep pace with surrounding states while falling far behind in teacher salaries and classroom funding.

The growth in the number of non-teacher positions in school districts is wasteful.

Critics of efforts to provide greater funding for Oklahoma schools often cite growth in the number of positions that are not classroom teachers as an indication of wasteful spending in schools.  Today’s schools are expected to provide more support for students than ever before, necessitating specialized support staff who work individually with students to improve skills including reading and math specialists, speech pathologists, and English as a Second Language specialists.  Growth in these positions benefits students who are struggling in reading or math or learning English, providing the support they need to be successful.  They are not wasteful; rather, they are essential to student success.

The problems with school funding in Oklahoma have been solved by the teacher pay raise. 

The financial problems for Oklahoma schools have always been multi-faceted and cannot be solved by one simple policy solution.  A teacher pay raise is an important step toward stemming the teacher shortage.  Additional funding for classrooms will improve teacher retention (by providing teachers with the resources they need to do their jobs well), provide instructional resources for students, allow schools to fund non-core courses (like art and music) and extracurricular activities, and enable schools to hire more teachers and lower class sizes—all of which contribute to better learning environments for students.  The teacher pay raise measure passed was only the first step in what needs to be a long-term solution to ensure the state legislature meets its constitutional obligation to fund public education.

What other misconceptions about school funding have you heard that we as a community need to address?

What would Oklahoma schools do with $2,000 more per student?

This semester, I developed and taught a new graduate class called Equity, Justice, and Inclusion in Education Policy.  We ended up focusing mostly on equity and how different state and federal education policies hamper and improve equity in schools.  In the current political climate in our state, we had plenty of state and local policies to discuss in addition to federal policies.  One evening while discussing school funding formulas and Oklahoma lagging behind the regional average (by about $2,00 per student), a student asked, “What would Oklahoma schools do with $2,000 more per student?” This was a simple but brilliant question and I was so glad it was asked!

Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 10.31.24 AM

Thanks to OSSBA for creating this handy graphic showing what our neighbors spend per student.

In class, we discussed what we thought schools would do with adequate funding and my top four ideas are below (perhaps it’s my Christmas wish list for #oklaed).  A caveat, though: I write this from a university campus where I work with schools and pre-service teachers, NOT from a principal’s office or K-12 classroom.  I look forward to hearing from my K-12 colleagues about what their priorities would be.

  1. Increase teacher pay.  At this point, anyone in Oklahoma who argues that we don’t need an across-the-board teacher pay increase isn’t paying attention to the droves of teachers leaving our state each year.  While teacher pay is only one factor in Oklahoma’s teacher shortage, increasing teacher pay to be regionally competitive would go a long way toward reducing teacher turnover.  The State Board of Education says that we need an across-the-board raise of $5,000 to be regionally competitive (News OK).
  2. More classroom teachers and smaller class sizes.  When we moved to Oklahoma in 2015, I was shocked to learn that my daughter’s second grade class had 28 students in it.  In the last two years, Oklahoma schools have eliminated at least 2,000 teaching positions leading to untenable class sizes (OSSBA, The Tulsa World).  In addition to smaller class sizes being better for students and teachers, it also leads to job creation.  It’s a win all around!
  3. Wrap-around services for students and families.  In Oklahoma, 62% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, indicating that their families live in poverty (OK State Department of Education).  Students from impoverished backgrounds are more likely to lack access to healthcare, adequate food, and before- and after-school care.  If  Oklahoma schools were funded at a regionally competitive rate, they could invest in wrap-around services to support students from low-income backgrounds.  In-school health clinics that are free to students and families, meal programs that provide backpacks of food to students so they can eat on the weekends, and inexpensive school-based childcare all improve readiness to learn for students from low-income families.
  4. Additional instructional support staff.  At my children’s school district in Arkansas, every school had its own literacy coach just for kindergarteners.  Let me repeat: there was a literacy coach (a former teacher with a Master’s degree in Reading and the license of Reading Specialist) who ONLY worked with kindergarteners.  That level of staffing meant that every kindergarten student received individual instruction in reading.  There were additional literacy coaches for the other grades.  Positions like literacy and math coaches or specialists or facilitators are essential to providing extra support to students who are below grade level.  Additional counselors, teachers for specials (art, music, computer, STEM lab, etc.), and librarians provide more support for classroom teachers and students and extend learning.

If you’re a teacher, administrator, or parent, how would you spend an extra $2,000 per student?  How would our schools be transformed if the Oklahoma Legislature provided funding comparable to the regional average?

Authentic Assessment: What, Why, and How?

Last night, Oklahoma’s Governor vetoed Senate Bill 2, a bill that would repeal the requirement that all Oklahoma high school students take a standardized, multiple choice U.S. history exam.  I expected this to be signed by the Governor because last year a bill repealing the other end of instruction exams sailed through the legislature and was signed.  My disappointment in keeping the U.S. History exam is not due to a fear of or disdain for assessment.  On the contrary, I am a huge proponent of assessment (and this is one of my areas of expertise), but I am not a fan of standardized multiple choice exams.  Why?

1) Filling in bubbles tells us very little about what students actually know and can do.  It may tell us a great deal about a student’s ability to guess or memorize.

2) Very few multiple choice exams are well-written, including questions that actually require higher level of Bloom’s taxonomy (analysis, synthesis, etc.).

3) And, just to shout on the internet for a moment: LIFE IS NOT MULTIPLE CHOICE.  Multiple choice exams do not give students an opportunity to show us how what they have learned matters in the world outside the classroom.

The great news is that we are not stuck with standardized, one-size-fits-all multiple choice exams!  Instead, I’m a proponent of authentic assessment.  What is authentic assessment?

“…Engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field.” (Wiggins, 1993, p. 229)

So, according to education guru Grant Wiggins, authentic assessment includes:

1) Questions or problems that are engaging and important (how many of those have you seen recently on a standardized multiple choice exam?).

2) Students’ application of what they have learned to a performance-based task.

3) Tasks that represent what adults are expected to do.

As we discussed the veto of SB 2 last night, my husband (a high school U.S. history teacher) asked what I would create to replace the U.S History exam.  I was just waiting for that question!  OK history teachers could get together to design a rubric that reflects the standards and then create several assignments that require the same content (but could be different in form to provide room for teacher creativity and autonomy and student choice).  Representative samples of student work would be selected each year from a representative sample of OK high schools and the work would be assessed by a panel of OK history teachers.  This process would result in a much deeper understanding of what OK students know about U.S. history and, even more importantly, what they can do with that knowledge.

In higher ed, there is an on-going experiment called the Multi-State Collaborative that is similar to what is described above.  Rubrics were developed in content and skill areas by faculty from across the nation and are now being utilized to evaluate student work, creating comparisons within and among campuses without the use of standardized exams.

The overall impact of moving away from standardized multiple-choice exams is seen in classrooms because teachers no longer have to teach to the test, but are freed to think creatively about the types of summative assessments that will give students an opportunity to use what they have learned.  Authentic assessments improve student engagement, deepen student learning, and give teachers greater autonomy.  It’s a win-win-win!

 

Reference

Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessing student performance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Are Oklahoma Schools Too Good at Doing Their Jobs?

Last month, I spoke to an administrator in a local school district and asked them what they would have to cut in light of the reductions in state funding.  He responded, “We will do everything we can to absorb the cuts with minimal impact on students and teachers.  We will keep doing our jobs.”  While I appreciate this students-first mentality, I can’t help but wonder: are schools too good at doing their jobs even in the midst of historic reductions in funding?

The budget crisis for schools in Oklahoma shows zero signs of improvement.  The legislature’s empty promises to pass a teacher pay increase came to end this week.  There is only minimal discussion about increasing overall per student funding.  This week, I visited the state Capitol and heard lawmakers arguing over definitions related to the per student funding formula while largely ignoring (other than Senator Dossett) any substantive discussion about improved funding.  And when revenue measures are suggested, they are often regressive, like Governor Fallin’s proposal to increase the gas tax (while the gross production tax, lowest in the nation, remains untouched).

There are some prominent school district leaders in the state who frequently speak up regarding the dire need for additional funding and the impact inadequate funding has on students (I’m thinking specifically and gratefully of  Dr. Gist from Tulsa Public Schools and Ms. Lora from OKC Public Schools).  However, in order to make a dent in the opposition to generating revenue, Oklahomans need to pressure the majority party who mostly represent either suburban or rural school districts.

Up to this point, many school leaders of the suburban districts serving affluent families have remained silent.  These districts include most of the top-ranked high schools in the state where administrators are making very difficult decisions to protect students and families from the impression that the budget cuts are hurting them.  If students and parents are never impacted by the budget cuts, they will not see the need to contact their legislators to implore them to find solutions.

I joked with the administrator that all it would take to convince the legislature to act was for one of the major football powers in the state to cancel a game due to lack of funds.  Or, in the Tulsa area, canceling a 6A band competition might even be worse!  But neither scenario would ever happen.  Our district leaders and schools do everything they can to prevent inadequate state funding from impacting students in that way.  Especially in the suburban districts serving more affluent students, school leaders feel pressure to act as if everything is fine so parents are assured their students are still receiving a world-class education despite draconian cuts to school funding.

So instead of speaking out publicly for adequate funding, school leaders in some districts move as many expenses as they can from the general funds to bond money.  They seek community philanthropic support for extracurricular activities and teacher professional development programs.  Teachers use their personal money to supply their classrooms.  And every time a school is creative with its funding to keep the lights on, prevent the science fair from being canceled, or ensure that the band has uniforms, the majority party in Oklahoma can claim that schools are flush with cash and do not need additional money.  It’s a catch-22 and schools and students are caught in the middle.

Schools are too good at doing their jobs.

 

 

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