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Two big myths that distort Oklahoma’s education funding debate

by | October 3rd, 2017 | Posted in Education | Comments (7)

For years now, how we fund our schools has been the number one controversy in Oklahoma politics. Education funding has been the subject of numerous bills and proposals, state, national, and international media coverage, and the largest Capitol rally in state history. The symptoms of a crisis in education are all around us: dozens of districts going to 4-day school weeks; a skyrocketing number of teacher jobs being filled by emergency-certified teachers, because there was no applicant with a required teaching license; and hundreds of Oklahoma’s best teachers moving out of the state or quitting the profession so they can earn a living wage.

Despite this evidence, some lawmakers continue to resist admitting that Oklahoma needs to increase revenues for education — especially if it means raising taxes. Lawmakers and anti-tax interest groups have felt the pressure from the large numbers of Oklahomans upset about what’s happening in public schools, so they put a lot of energy into coming up with excuses for why more revenues are not the answer. They have manipulated data and cherry-picked numbers to claim that lack of funding isn’t the problem. Here are two big myths that have distorted Oklahoma’s education funding debate:

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What it will take for Oklahoma to avoid becoming a third world state (Capitol Update)

by | September 1st, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Education | Comments (2)

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.

Twenty-eight years ago, amidst a crisis in the Oklahoma economy, parents, teachers, business leaders and others told Oklahoma legislators that to make Oklahoma’s future better they would need to make Oklahoma’s schools better. Education experts told legislators to make schools better it would take good teachers teaching children who are ready to learn in smaller classes with the latest textbooks and technology.

In response, to weed out weak teachers, legislators changed teacher tenure, giving school boards authority to terminate teacher contracts based on incompetency. Before that contracts could be terminated for some form of wrongdoing. Because teachers did not trust school boards to fairly evaluate teacher competency, teachers were allowed to fully appeal their cases in court. This is called “trial de novo.” Legislators also mandated a $9,000 increase in the minimum salary schedule over 5 years, the equivalent of $17,200 today.

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Higher education funding cuts continue to drive up tuition and threaten college access

by | August 24th, 2017 | Posted in Education | Comments (0)

Another national report is calling attention to Oklahoma’s drastic cuts to funding for colleges and universities in recent years. At a time when a college education has never been more critical for individual prosperity and state economic development, funding decisions by Oklahoma lawmakers continue to make college less affordable and accessible.

In the decade since the Great Recession, Oklahoma has cut per pupil higher education funding by over one-third (34.0 percent) once adjusted for inflation, according to a national survey released this week by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a DC-based think tank. These are the sixth deepest cuts in the nation over this period. On a per pupil basis, state funding declined by $3,294 between 2008 and 2017 in real dollars.

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Oklahoma already led the nation in cuts to K-12 education. Now we lead in cuts to higher ed too.

by | July 11th, 2017 | Posted in Budget, Education | Comments (4)

For several years now, Oklahoma has led the nation in cuts to state aid funding of K-12 schools by reducing state aid per student 26.9 percent since 2008. That’s almost twice as much as the next worst state, Alabama. The results are clear. Many of our state’s best teachers are leaving for other states, nearly one in five of the state’s school districts are going to 4-day weeks, class sizes are growing, arts, athletics, and STEM programs are being cut, and more.

These problems have gotten attention in state and national media — so much that Governor Fallin says she is having trouble convincing businesses to come to Oklahoma because of them. Less attention has gone to higher education, because even though higher education funding also saw deep cuts, those cuts weren’t leading the nation.

That has changed, according to a new report from researchers at Illinois State University. Over the past five years, Oklahoma has cut state funding for higher education by 17.8 percent, the most in the nation. As with K-12 funding, our cuts have been much deeper than the next worst state (Louisiana with 11.5 percent cuts). We are one of only seven states that didn’t increase funding over this period and one of only three states that cut funding by more than 10 percent.

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Time for teachers to use their outside voices (Capitol Update)

by | June 16th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Education | Comments (2)

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.

Where are the teachers? I don’t blame the teachers who have decided to leave the classroom or leave the state. But are those who are staying willing to fight in Oklahoma for their profession and their children? After four months of wrangling, legislators closed the 2017 session with a so-called “flat” education budget. Many of them wanted to do better, but they could have used a little help. We’re number one in cutting education in the past eight years.

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Highs and lows of Oklahoma’s 2017 legislative session (Part 1)

by | June 12th, 2017 | Posted in Budget, Education, Taxes | Comments (0)

At the start of session, OK Policy laid out our top priorities in the areas of budget and taxes, health care, education, criminal justice and economic opportunity. As the session developed, we achieved some victories with good bills and helped stop even more harmful bills from becoming law. And there were plenty of disappointments in the form of promising legislation that died along the way.

Here are our staff’s recaps of the major highs and lows of the 2017 session in the issue areas where we were most deeply engaged. In part one, we share recaps of what happened with budget, tax, and education polices. In part two, we discuss what happened with health care, criminal justice, and economic opportunity policies.

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Schools use food trucks to fight food insecurity during summer months

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

For Oklahoma families who are food-insecure, school meals can be a lifeline. Six in ten students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals at school. These meals offer solid nutrition while alleviating tight household budgets. But hunger doesn’t take a vacation during summer break, and although federal summer meal programs are available, participation in Oklahoma lags badly. However, some Oklahoma school districts have found success by building on a new distribution model: food trucks.

Mobile summer meal delivery isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that’s growing. In Alabama, Mobile County Schools has converted four buses to food trucks with an eat-in area so students can eat in air conditioning. In San Marcos, Texas, the district converted a bus that delivers lunch food to high-need areas. School districts in Delaware, Florida, and Connecticut successfully used food trucks to distribute food to students over the summer, too. With the help of local community partners like food banks and libraries, more students across the nation are gaining access to schools meals during the summer months.

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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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