Bailey Perkins is an OK Policy Research Fellow and a second year Master of Public Administration student at the University of Oklahoma. She serves on the board of directors for the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy as the advocacy chairman and completed a summer fellowship studying education facility disparities through the Southern Education Foundation
A state’s budget is a reflection of its values. If we judged Oklahoma by its investment in public education, we would believe that Oklahomans undervalue education. When it comes to educational spending, Oklahoma has had a 23 percent per pupil drop in investment between the 2008 and 2014 school years – the largest educational cut in the nation. If we want to have a stronger, sustainable Oklahoma, we need to rethink our priorities and invest substantially in public education.
Our education system is malnourished because our legislature is starving the system. On top of state cuts, our education system has also experienced federal cuts in funding and the loss of local property tax revenues, which heavily impact school districts. Oklahoma schools have lived on scraps for far too long and we must invest in our most valuable asset: our children.
Public education matters because our state’s viability depends on it. Oklahoma’s public school population has increased over the past six years by 31,000 students, yet our spending fails to reflect these increases.
Furthermore, Oklahoma fails to adequately compensate those who are shaping the minds of our future workforce: our teachers. We often express our desire to “beat Texas” but we cannot compete with Texas if we pay our teachers over $4,000 less on average. In fact, according to the National Education Association, we pay our teachers less than 46 other states besides Texas.
Statewide, we are losing some of our best and brightest educators because of our failure to properly compensate our educators. In Tulsa, 400 teachers retired or resigned last year; to address its “huge teacher shortage”, Tulsa Public Schools is spending over $400,000 in private funds to hire a national firm to help with teacher recruitment.Oklahoma City is reported to have lost 100 teachers this year to higher paying districts and Lawton Public Schools recently estimated that they will have a shortage of teachers in the 2014 -2015 season. If we cannot recruit and retain the best and brightest to stay in Oklahoma to teach our children, how can we train our future workforce? What does it say to the quality of our education?
Critics often question the adequacy of public schools, but public education is by no mean synonymous with stagnation and complacency. I believe that public schools are fully capable of innovating and meeting the needs of the twenty first century – if properly funded.
This summer, as part of a fellowship with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, I spent my time traveling the state of Arkansas, interviewing school officials and observing school facilities first hand. One school particularly impressed me with its vibrant walls, modernized and spacious science labs, art rooms resembling professional studios, and state of the art medical simulation materials for students interested in health sciences. The city of Conway showed me what tax dollars are capable of doing when we invest them into students. Their innovative and modernized approach to education prepares their students to meet the demands of higher education and the workforce. As I awed in amazement of the school, I thought: why can’t Oklahoma’s children have this experience? Then, reality sunk in: our expenditures per student are lower than the rest of the nation – including Arkansas. Oklahoma public school districts will lack the capacity for innovation and opportunity for educational environment without proper support.
Education is an invaluable tool and the most important investment into our state’s future, yet we devalue it when we fail to invest in our schools and in our teachers. I believe in Oklahoma and I value Oklahoma’s public education system. I hope that our elected officials will show a genuine commitment to this sentiment by prioritizing education in their decision making this upcoming legislative session.
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