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.