Elizabeth Smith 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. She recently completed a Ph.D. in Public Policy, P-20 Education Policy.
The latest school funding numbers have been released, and, sadly, Oklahoma is once again the winner! After inflation, our state’s general funding for K-12 education is 27 percent less per pupil than before the beginning of the 2008 recession, a higher percentage than any other state in the country. This amounts to $211 less per student per year in each school. As a parent, I care about school funding because I want my kids to have art and music programs and teachers who are treated like professionals and have access to the best resources to use in their classrooms. As a higher education professional for the last 12 years, though, why does adequate funding for K-12 education matter to my work?
…higher education struggles, too
Between the beginning of the recession in 2008 and spring 2015, enrollment at colleges and universities in Oklahoma dropped by more than 11,000 students (4.3 percent). That’s the same period as Oklahoma’s deep cuts to K-12 school funding. Inadequate funding for K-12 schools means larger classes, fewer teachers, higher teacher turnover, and fewer extracurricular activities for students, all of which may contribute to less prepared high school graduates and decreased college-going rates.
Decreased enrollment in higher education in the state also negatively affects the communities surrounding colleges and universities through layoffs and reduced services for students and employees. Additionally, fewer college students means a lower economic impact on the restaurants and shops surrounding many college campuses. The inextricable link between K-12 schools and higher education indicates that inadequate funding for schools negatively impacts colleges and universities.
…students are less prepared for college
Colleges and universities depend on K-12 schools to adequately prepare students for post-secondary work. While there is no universal agreement about what it means to be college-ready, colleges and universities generally have ACT/SAT score cutoffs for determining if students can take freshman-level courses in English, reading, and math. When students do not meet that threshold, they are placed into developmental or remedial courses which cover content students should have mastered in high school.
Between 2008 and 2015, the number of students enrolled in public universities in Oklahoma decreased by 1.9 percent while the number of students in remedial courses at public institutions increased by 8.0 percent. Significantly more students in Oklahoma colleges and universities were not prepared for college over a period during which state funding for K-12 schools was cut significantly.
While administering remedial courses places a burden on colleges and universities, lack of preparedness significantly affects students and families who nationally spend $1.5 billion on remedial courses per year. Remedial courses are required but do not count toward degrees, decreasing the likelihood that students will graduate and increasing their time to degree if they do graduate. Underfunded K-12 schools produce more high school graduates who are not prepared for college, which passes the cost onto both colleges and students.
…the gap between low-income and affluent districts widens
Inadequately funded K-12 schools also contribute to inequality in higher education. Institutions of higher education increasingly serve students from diverse backgrounds and seek to improve access and success for all students. When K-12 schools are underfunded, the schools that suffer the most are those serving low-income, minority students in communities that may not have the philanthropic resources to supplement state funding. When K-12 schools are underfunded, the gap between low-income and affluent school districts and their students widens. This directly affects higher education as we seek to recruit more students from underrepresented backgrounds. Fewer resources for students attending low-income schools expands the gap between them and their affluent peers, ultimately leading to fewer students from underrepresented backgrounds who are adequately prepared for college.
…the teacher shortage gets worse
Lack of adequate funding in K-12 schools will also sustain the teacher shortage in Oklahoma. Imagine attempting to recruit high schools students to enroll in teacher education programs across Oklahoma right now. There are some excellent movements to support teacher education happening around the state, including Teach Like Me, and certainly many individual teachers inspire students to become teachers every day. But when K-12 students can see the cuts being made in their schools and hear the rhetoric directed toward teachers, why would they seek a teaching license?
Nationally, the number of college freshmen who plan to major in education fell to 4.2 percent in 2016, an all-time low (and down by more than half from 11 percent in 2000). Years of funding cuts to schools as well as increased accountability pressures and other factors have driven college students to choose other careers. Adequate funding for K-12 education matters because we need intellectually curious, hard-working, ambitious students to pursue teaching as a career so they can educate future leaders in education, business, medicine, and government.
Ultimately, K-12 and higher education are intricately connected; colleges and universities cannot provide post-secondary education without K-12 schools first preparing students for college. A lack of adequate funding for K-12 schools in Oklahoma undermines the capacity of K-12 schools to prepare students for post-secondary success.
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