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Amid budget deadlock, a reminder of what’s at stake

At the state Capitol, lawmakers remain deadlocked over how to find enough revenue to avoid crippling budget scenarios. The main barrier appears to be legislative leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on removing huge tax breaks for oil and gas producers. On Wednesday night, oil and gas industry lobbyists preemptively held an end-of-session party for lawmakers, but without a budget deal the session may not end anytime soon.

Meanwhile, school districts left in the dark about what their budgets will look like next year have already begun to make cuts. Tulsa Public Schools approved a plan to close three schools and lay off 37 teachers; Oklahoma City is increasing class sizes and selling their administration building; Woodward is shutting down a summer program and cutting staff; Muskogee is ending a popular STEM program. These cuts are only the latest in what is approaching a decade of squeezed education funding — students in 1st grade when we started cutting funding are now high school freshmen. More than 200 schools across the state have already gone to a 4-day school week, and dozens of school districts are looking at or have already shortened their school year.

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Bill to expand eligibility for Oklahoma’s Promise scholarships would be a win for all Oklahomans

The Oklahoma Legislature is close to passing a bill (SB 529) to make Oklahoma’s Promise scholarships available to more students. Available since 1996, these scholarships cover the cost of tuition for in-state students at an Oklahoma public college or university if students complete a series of college-readiness requirements before high school graduation and maintain a passing GPA once in college.

Oklahoma’s Promise scholarships have become a critical part of college planning for low and moderate income Oklahoma families as they are guaranteed to students who meet the income guidelines and complete the requirements.  Expanding access to the program is necessary if Oklahoma wants to compete in the new economy where most high-paying jobs require advanced education.

Currently, students are eligible for the scholarship if their family’s income is below $50,000 at the time they apply.  SB 529 would raise the income limit to $55,000 in 2017-2018 and then to $60,000 in 2021-2022.  SB 529 has passed both the House and Senate, but the Senate still needs to approve House amendments or work out the language in conference committee. The bill is close to the finish line, which is good news for college-bound students and for the whole state.

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Oklahoma school meals programs bring new strategies to fight child hunger

Maggie Den Harder is an intern with Oklahoma Policy Institute and a Masters of Public Administration student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.

In Oklahoma school meal programs are vital to helping children who are food insecure get reliable access to nutritious meals. Schools offer breakfast and lunch as a matter of course, but some districts are going a step further and providing after-school meals. In Oklahoma City Public Schools, Capitol Hill High School is testing a pilot program providing dinner at school at no cost to students who choose to participate. Similarly, Shawnee Public Schools provides an “enhanced snack” to students at the end of the school day. The pilot programs set a good example for how we can better feed hungry children across the state.

More than 8 in 10 students in Oklahoma City Public schools qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, and administrators recognized that for many students, two school meals a day still meant many were at risk of going to bed hungry. To combat hunger and meet the needs of students, the OKC school board voted in 2016 to begin a pilot supper program at Capitol Hill High School, using funds available through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

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Arts and Culture: A public-private partnership that’s good for education, the economy, and Oklahoma’s future (Guest Post: Brenda Granger)

by | April 12th, 2017 | Posted in Budget, Economy, Education | Comments (0)

Brenda Granger is Executive Director of the Oklahoma Museums Association. Today is Oklahoma Arts Day at the State Capitol.

Arts and culture promote civility and transcend all boundaries. Arts and culture bring people together. Arts and culture are rooted in partnerships of all kinds, especially public-private partnerships. Arts and culture organizations offer transformational experiences to everyone across our great state and beyond. In these times of educational crisis and budget shortfalls, the Legislature should look to arts and culture as part of the solution. Funding for the Oklahoma Arts Council (OAC), and through them, arts and cultural organizations in our state, is important to our Oklahoma education, economy, communities, workforce, and future.

Not everyone realizes how important arts and culture are for Oklahoma’s education system and economy. In the next months, Oklahomans for the Arts, in partnership with Americans for the Arts, Oklahoma Arts Council, and several arts and cultural organizations, will have the latest economic impact numbers to share. It is expected the numbers will exceed those of the last study in 2010 of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations that showed that the industry had a $314.8 million impact on the state’s economy, supported 10,156 full-time equivalent jobs, and generated more than $29 million in state and local government revenues.

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SB 81 would break Oklahoma’s obligation to educate all kids

by | March 30th, 2017 | Posted in Education | Comments (3)

Article 13 of Oklahoma’s Constitution begins: “The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.” That commitment to educate all of the children in our state is prominent in our founding document. Yet in the face of shrinking resources for schools, higher class sizes, and more inexperienced teachers, some Oklahoma lawmakers are proposing we go in the opposite direction. To establish better control over classrooms, Senate Bill 81 by Sen. Ron Sharp (R-Shawnee) proposes to suspend more kids — effectively giving up on Oklahoma’s obligation to provide them with an education.

The bill, which passed the Senate and now awaits a hearing in the House, would extend the law allowing out-of-school suspensions from sixth grade and up all the way down to third graders. Kids as young as 8 or 9 years old would face out-of-school suspension for two semesters if they are “found to have assaulted, attempted to cause physical bodily injury, or acted in a manner that could reasonably cause bodily injury” to a school employee or volunteer. Some opportunities for appeal are provided in the law, but the default punishment would be suspension, whether or not actual harm to a school employee occurred.

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Legislature’s timid approach to a teacher raise doesn’t bode well for schools (Capitol Update)

by | March 17th, 2017 | Posted in Budget, Capitol Updates, Education | Comments (0)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

I watched the House floor debate on HB 1114 by Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Broken Arrow) raising the minimum salary schedule for Oklahoma teachers by $6,000 over the next 3 years. The raises would be $1000 next year followed by $2000 and $3000 respectively in the next two years. The bill contained no funding, but Rep. Rogers said funding would be considered by separate measures later in the session.

It was gratifying to listen to all the debaters-for and against-recognize both that teachers should be paid more money and that operational expenses for courses, textbooks, technology, and many other aspects of funding for schools also needs more money. Those who debated against the bill did not debate against the need for teacher raises but against passing a bill only for teacher raises and with no funding.

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For the first time, lawmakers were found guilty of supplanting lottery funds for schools

by | March 15th, 2017 | Posted in Budget, Education | Comments (5)

Along with all of their other budget challenges, lawmakers this session will need to allocate an additional $10.1 million for the Education Lottery Trust Fund as the result of a determination made last month that lottery funds had been used to supplant rather than enhance education funding this year.

Back in 2004, Oklahoma voters established the state lottery via two state questions. The first, SQ 705, created the Lottery Commission and specified how lottery funds would be allocated. The second, SQ 706, created the Oklahoma Lottery Education Trust Fund into which lottery funds are deposited and stated that this fund could be spent only on specified education-related purposes. To ensure that money raised through the lottery would be used to enhance education spending and not allow existing education dollars to be diverted elsewhere, SQ 706 included “supplantation” language. This language was added to the State Constitution as Article X, Section 41.D :

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Using lawsuits to fund our schools: Is it time to try again? (Guest post: Elizabeth Smith)

by | March 13th, 2017 | Posted in Education | Comments (2)

Elizabeth Smith, Ph.D., is the planning director for the Yale National Initiative at the University of Tulsa, a partnership between TU, Tulsa Public Schools, and Yale University to strengthen teaching in Tulsa schools.

“The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated. … The Legislature shall, by appropriate legislation, raise appropriate funds for the annual support of the common schools of the State…”

The Oklahoma State Constitution, Article 13

An Oklahoma native, I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2001 to attend the University of Arkansas.  I transitioned from being a student to a resident of Arkansas and began a career in higher education which included research on PreK-12 schools.  Studying school funding in Arkansas, I investigated the transformation that took place in statewide education following Lake View School District no. 25 v. Huckabee, one in a series of Arkansas Supreme Court decisions that contributed to an overhaul of the school funding system. Moving back to Oklahoma in 2015, colleagues have frequently asked me, “Why are Arkansas schools funded so much better than Oklahoma schools?”  My short answer is always: “Lake View.”  Yes, this is an oversimplification considering that Arkansas and Oklahoma are very different in terms of population, major industries, and history.  However, Lake View was the turning point for school funding in Arkansas, and similar cases have been turning points in many other states.

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Increasing breakfast in the classroom participation can help kids learn while strengthening school budgets

Maggie Den Harder is an intern with Oklahoma Policy Institute and a Masters of Public Administration student at the University of Oklahoma – Tulsa.

Experts agree that a healthy breakfast is crucial for children to grow and learn. However, in many families factors like hectic morning schedules and pinched finances mean that children don’t get a nutritious start for the day. This is where the School Breakfast Program comes in. Like the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program allows low-income students to receive meals for free or at a reduced price. A new report shows that Oklahoma’s school breakfast participation as a percentage of School Lunch Participation outpaces the national average. Maintaining and building on this success would bring a wealth of benefits to Oklahoma students while improving the finances of school nutrition departments.

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Where teacher raises are needed most

by | March 1st, 2017 | Posted in Education | Comments (2)

If there’s one thing Oklahoma citizens and political leaders of both major parties agree on, it’s that our state’s teachers need a raise. Republican leaders in the House and the Senate both say a teacher raise is at the top of their priorities in the coming session, and Democrats in both chambers have filed bills to increase teacher salaries as well. Even the most vocal opponents of the SQ 779 teacher raise plan insisted that they believe teachers need a raise but disagreed with how SQ 779 would pay for it.

In her State of the State address to kick off this year’s legislative session, Governor Fallin laid out some parameters for a teacher raise. She said, “Let’s act on a permanent pay raise for our public school teachers. It is what the public and families want. The pay raise may need to be phased in and it may be targeted, but it must be done.”

Ideally, we could pay all teachers much higher salaries, but with Oklahoma staring at another large budget hole and legislators already expressing skepticism about Governor Fallin’s most ambitious revenue ideas, it seems unlikely that we can find the money for a significant across-the-board teacher raise this year. So if we need to aim for a targeted raise, how should it be targeted?

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