A View From The Edge

Spoiler Alert – We’re Still the Problem

local-controlFounding Father and President Thomas Jefferson is often credited with saying, “The government closest to the people serves them best.”

It’s the essence of “small government conservatism.”  Decentralization of power and functions from the federal government to state and local governments has been a cornerstone of Republican party principles since Eisenhower.

Lately, though, that bedrock conservative principle has proved somewhat mushy when local governments embrace policies contrary to the will of the ruling party.

Then, conservatives are only all about local control until they’re not.

Case in point: the official campaign website of Oklahoma State Senator Kyle Loveless (R-OKC) paints the Senator as a champion for local control in education.

“Kyle stands up for our local schools and supports more local control within the school district, because they know the educational needs of students better than distant bureaucrats.”

Really? The Senator’s recent actions say otherwise. 

Shortly after winning reelection in November, Senator Loveless proposed several pieces of legislation that would expand state control and increase micromanagement of school districts.

Why? Because we’re the problem.

In the Senator’s mind – when it comes to issues like professional development, management of school employees, and development of school academic calendars – “distant bureaucrats” at the Capitol apparently do know better than local school boards and superintendents.

Senator Loveless has proposed legislation that does nothing to address the educational needs of students (things like adequate funding and improving teacher compensation to keep teachers in Oklahoma), but rather would saddle school districts with more unfunded and  unnecessary mandates.

First, we have Senate Bill 16 (SB 16). This bill is not related to local control but could have a significant impact on funding for some districts.

This legislation would change how initial State Aid allocations are determined for school districts. Currently, state aid is awarded based on the highest Average Daily Membership (ADM) from the TWO preceding school years or the ADM as of October 1 of the current year.

For simplicity sake, ADM represents the average student enrollment in a school district over a defined period of time. It is used to calculate state aid funding for Oklahoma districts on a per pupil basis.

If passed, the new law would limit the allocation to the higher of the current year and the preceding year. In short, instead of the last three data points for ADM, the state would only look at the most recent two.

This change may not seem to be a big deal, but could be very important for schools with declining enrollments. The current law gives districts time to adjust their spending over a longer period of time and avoid significant personnel fluctuations from year to year.

I need to take more time to study this legislation to better understand the senator’s purpose. If passed, this legislation would not impact the total amount of state funding available to schools, but could increase the per pupil allocation by potentially lowering the total statewide ADM. That could actually benefit some districts while negatively impacting others. That said, the issue is worthy of additional study.

Next, Senate Bill 19 would add the requirement for districts to develop and issue an annual “fiscal report card.” This report card would include specific information on the salary and benefits of its employees; the cost of utilities, operations, and maintenance of each school site; the cost of classroom supplies spent for each site; the costs of student transportation; and all  expenditures related to child nutrition.

I get it. Local democratic control with total fiscal transparency is necessary. I also acknowledge most of this data is readily available in district budgets and can be requested by patrons at any time. However, the requirement to break this down by school site and provide every student with a copy of the report by March of each year is just another needless administrative mandate.

I suspect what the Senator is really hoping to do is gather evidence to support his narrative that schools are wasteful, bloated bureaucracies and that we are lying about our financial condition.

In short, we’re the problem.

It’s not true, but the Senator (and others) are convinced that schools have plenty of money and should clean our own house before asking for any additional funding.

With Senate Bill 20, Senator Loveless seeks to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. This legislation would mandate annual profession development to instruct educators on appropriate behavior between students and teachers and recognition of grooming behavior.

By grooming, I assume the Senator is not referring to training related to clothing, hygiene, and hair styles, but rather to the deliberate tactics often used by sexual predators to select victims and engage them in sexual abuse.

I think we can all agree that any immoral interaction between educators and children is reprehensible and should not be tolerated. This is precisely why we already have strict laws in place to protect students from inappropriate conduct from school staff.

But, to subject ALL teachers to additional annual “training” to remind them that having sex with students is bad (and a felony) is legislative overkill.

But, we’re the problem.

Should we also have required training to ensure teachers are aware that murder, arson, and bank robbery are also still illegal?

Finally, Senate Bill 37 would require all districts to use a five-day school week in the development of their academic calendars.

If you recall, there is a lot of concern at the Capitol because nearly one in five Oklahoma districts have now moved to a four-day calendar to save money and to make their districts more attractive to potential teachers, given the current teacher shortage. In short, districts are simply trying to keep their best teachers and their fiscal “heads above water” after years of legislative neglect.

I also have reservations about four-day school weeks, primarily because of potential impact(s) on families (e.g. higher childcare costs, less child supervision) and loss of services (counseling, school meals) for many disadvantaged children. Candidly, I would not support a move to a four-day week in my own district.

At the same time, this is a local decision best made by local boards and communities. If citizens oppose the four-day week, they have a ready recourse by petitioning their local board members to reverse the change, or vote them out of office.

I am also aware some districts have actually reported positive outcomes and higher test scores as a result of the change to four-day weeks. There is also research from other states like New Mexico claiming positive academic benefits. Again, I would need to study the issue more to give a well-informed opinion.

The bottom line is that with this legislation, lawmakers are indeed telling districts that they know better how to meet the needs of students than the folks in the local districts. They are also accepting no accountability for the decisions that have made it financially necessary for districts to explore the four-day option.

We’re the problem.

It’s getting to be a thing. Our Republican-dominated state government fails or refuses to act on a number of issues people are concerned about. So, “the government closest to the people,” hears the people and gives them what they want. Then, the governor and legislature seek to take it away.

Suffice it to say, we have many urgent problems in Oklahoma relative to public education that are not addressed by any of this proposed legislation.

Let’s review.

Oklahoma has endured the largest cuts (-27%) to per pupil spending in the nation since 2008. That figure not only leads the nation but is nearly double the percentage of cuts made by Alabama, the second worst state for educating funding reductions.

There has not be an increase to the teacher pay scale in a decade and many of our support staff have not enjoyed a single pay raise over the same time period. We are losing qualified educators to surrounding states at an alarming rate.

The state school board has approved 1,082 certificates this school year, up from 1,063 the previous year and more than double the 505 approved two years ago during the 2014-15 school year. An estimated 52,000 students, about 7 percent of all public school students in the state, are being taught by an emergency certified teacher.

Yet, based on much of the legislation submitted by Senator Loveless and others at the Capitol, Oklahoma educators will be compelled to spend excessive time and energy this spring fighting ridiculous new mandates and legislative overreach.

In other words, the focus will be on things that are not the true problem.

The absolute last thing we need to be talking about anytime soon is the implementation of ESAs or vouchers in Oklahoma. Anything that would siphon even one dollar away from public schools to private schools would be fiscally irresponsible.

Even Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, an avid school choice proponent, and other education officials in Indiana strongly advised Superintendent Hofmeister and a group of Oklahoma officials two years ago to NOT pursue vouchers in a down budget year.

I would say a projected budget shortfall of nearly 900 million dollars would qualify as ANOTHER down budget year.

Do we ever have UP budget years in Oklahoma? I don’t recall what that’s like.

But, of course, our “distant bureaucrats” in Oklahoma City know better than those of us who actually work in schools and understand our current challenges.

No, it’s not the lack of funding, absence of trust, and disrespect of teachers that’s the problem.

We are the problem.

Except we’re not.

Until Loveless and others at the Capitol begin to view public schools and teachers as the long-term solution for future economic success of our state, rather than the problem, Oklahoma will not be OK.

In conclusion, maybe folks like Senator Loveless might benefit from a little more self-reflection. Part of solving any problem is recognizing the source.

problem

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