In The Know: Schools relying more heavily on substitutes amid teacher shortage

In The KnowIn The Know is your daily briefing on Oklahoma policy-related news. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Click here to subscribe to In The Know and see past editions.

Today In The News

Oklahoma schools relying more heavily on substitutes amid teacher shortage, chronic absences: The effects of Oklahoma’s deepening teacher shortage on class size and course offerings are well-documented, but the scarcity of applicants and strain on teachers who remain have schools making do like never before. A Tulsa World analysis of data from the past seven academic years found absences by Tulsa Public Schools teachers increased nearly 63 percent from 18,800 days in 2009-10 to 30,600 days in 2014-15, while the number of teachers declined by 10 percent during the same period. [Tulsa World]

Tulsa Superintendent: We have to help our teachers: In 1988, I left Oklahoma and moved to Texas to teach first grade in a public school in Fort Worth. I love Oklahoma, and I adore Tulsa, but I left because I could make $21,000 a year in Texas. In 1988, the starting salary for a first year teacher in Oklahoma was $15,000. It would have taken me more than 10 years of teaching in my home state to match my first-year teacher salary in Texas. Nearly 30 years later, we are still having the same conversation about educator pay, and it has grown increasingly dire. [Deborah Gist / Tulsa World]

A man-made disaster is closing schools: Bixby school kids will have their snow days in May this year, but it won’t be because of a natural disaster. This disaster is all man-made. Pressed by the state falling short of its already inadequate school funding budget, the district has decided to close school May 12, six days early. The district will get in the state-mandated minimum number of school hours because it builds extra days into its schedule for bad weather, and this year winter was mild. But make no mistake about it, the children will end up getting less education because of the decision. [Tulsa World Editorial Board]

Comprehensive budget plan remains elusive for Oklahoma’s Legislature: Major parts of Gov. Mary Fallin’s plan for injecting new money into a sagging budget have failed to gain traction in the first seven weeks of the four-month legislative session. If an agreement can’t be reached on finding new revenue, lawmakers would be forced to make major funding cuts to agencies that educate young people, provide health care to the sick and maintain public safety. The state finds itself with budget problems after years of cutting income taxes and increasing tax breaks for businesses. [NewsOK] OK Policy has proposed five reasonable solutions for Oklahoma to close the budget shortfall. [OK Policy]

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister defends new academic standards for public schools: Just days before they could clear their final hurdle, proposed new academic standards for Oklahoma public schools are facing threats from inside the state and out. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the last-minute input and criticisms are political ploys. “As I have said in recent days, people from outside our state are swooping in at the eleventh hour to try politicizing Oklahoma’s standards. This report is evidence of that. We cannot let them,” she told the Tulsa World in a written statement. [Tulsa World]

Costs may delay Oklahoma anti-abortion curriculum: Legislation that would mandate Oklahoma’s public schools to teach that life begins at conception may fail not because of its controversial nature but because the suddenly financially strapped state could have trouble paying for the course materials. The National Right to Life Committee backs the Oklahoma bill and calls it the first of its kind in the nation. Under it, public high schools would be required to provide the information “for the purpose of achieving an abortion-free society.” [Associated Press]

Oklahoma Department of Human Services prepares to release plan to cut programs, services: In the midst of the state’s budget shortfall, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services prepares to make cuts to programs and services. “Things are very tight and very grim here at DHS,” said Sheree Powell, communications director for Oklahoma DHS. She said DHS has already trimmed the internal budget and cut 1,200 non-child welfare positions. Overall, this is a 23 percent reduction in staff in all other programs outside of child welfare services. [KOCO]

Health Department cuts mean increased disease and risk of death: The challenges of the current revenue failure and budget shortfall to state services like education, corrections, DHS and Mental Health are familiar. These agencies are usually in the spotlight because the consequences of inadequate services often end up on front pages. The Oklahoma State Department of Health is usually more low profile unless there is a widespread outbreak of disease or food poisoning. Even then, the focus is usually on finding the source of the outbreak and fixing it. Rarely do we seem to connect the dots and link understaffed and inadequate prevention services with the problem. [OK Policy]

Q&A With Kris Steele: Purpose Of Criminal Justice Propositions: An advocacy group, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, is seeking more than 65,000 signatures by early June to put two measures before voters on November’s ballot. Should the group garner enough signatures, the ballot would include State Questions 780 and 781, both seeking to address prison overcrowding and community mental health and to reduce sentences for future offenders convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes. [Oklahoma Watch]

Justice reform supporters collecting signatures to get state questions on ballot: Supporters for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma have taken to the streets to collect signatures to reduce population in state prisons as proposed by State Questions 780 and 781. Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform officially started the drive March 10 and have 60 days — until early June — to get more than 65,000 signatures on the two petitions. That means a minimum of 10,833 signatures are needed to be collected daily during the drive to meet the goal. [Tulsa Business & Legal News] Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is a coalition of community leaders and experts from across the state including OK Policy. [Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform]

Is state failing to do justice for Oklahomans with mental illnesses?: Debbie said she raised her grandson as best she could. She called him by his middle name, Skyler. His first name was Justus, a painful coincidence for a boy who never knew justice. Instead, Justus Skyler Cobbs, 21, is today housed at a prison, although he has a long history of mental health issues and is developmentally delayed. His charges are nonviolent: unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, trespassing on railroad property and malicious destruction of property. Skyler’s story isn’t an outlier. More than 16,500 of the offenders in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ populations — 57 percent — have a history of mental illness or current symptoms. [The Oklahoman]

Humane Society of the U.S. takes Oklahoma, attorney general to task over Right to Farm: The head of a national animal advocacy organization said a measure moving through the Legislature is an attempt to hurt his group’s ability to raise money to fight a controversial state question. Right to Farm, called Right to Harm by critics, will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot as State Question 777 if it withstands a legal challenge. Lawmakers put the issue before voters. It would create additional constitutional rights protecting the use of agricultural technology, livestock procedures and ranching practices. [Tulsa World]

Cattle association wants tougher penalties for rustling: The state House of Representatives on March 10 passed House Bill 2504 by a vote of 71-21; it has been moved to the Senate for a first reading. If the bill passes, each animal could be considered a potential felony offense punishable by three to 10 years of prison and a fine equal to three times the value of the animals and equipment stolen, up to $500,000. Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, said ranchers still plan to press for asset forfeiture of the automobiles and trailers that are used in rustling as the bill is worked through the Senate. [Journal Record]

Company that received largest DEQ fine ever for contamination of Hugo water set to take over Oklahoma City wastewater treatment: The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality says Severn Trent Services will pay $955,000 to settle the water problems and violations it made in Hugo, reaching the largest water quality related settlement in the state department’s history. At the same time, Severn Trent Services has just been approved by the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust to take over Oklahoma city’s wastewater treatment system and run the four wastewater treatment plants and facilities at a first-year cost of $13.2 million. The city council will take a final vote on Tuesday. [OK Energy Today]

As spring begins, drought creeps back into Oklahoma: Last spring, Roger Mills County saw more rain in a single week than it gets in some years. The bad news, though, is that it hasn’t gotten much since. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had rain here,” said Danny Cook, the county’s cooperative extension agent. On the heels of the state’s rainiest year on record, drought is beginning to return to parts of western Oklahoma as winter comes to an end. [NewsOK]

Quote of the Day

“We are paying the price for decades of inaction. That’s why I think ultimately we are where we are. People have been sending out the warning and saying, ‘The day will come when it’s going to hit a critical mass.’ And we are at a point now where our criminal justice system cannot handle those that are mentally ill, and we don’t have the appropriate therapeutic beds and facilities to deal with those who are coming into the criminal justice system at a rate that is just completely overwhelming.”

-Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, speaking about how Oklahoma spends among the least in the nation on its mental health system, despite having some of the highest rates of mental illness and substance abuse in the United States (Source)

Number of the Day


Tulsa’s Community Obesity Ranking for 2014, out of the 100 largest U.S. municipal areas. Oklahoma City was ranked 88th.

Source: Gallup-Healthways

See previous Numbers of the Day here.

Policy Note

A New Approach to Reversing the Downward Spiral of Low Turnout: Thanks to technological advances, it’s never been easier for the majority of US voters to get election information and cast their ballots. Most Americans can now go online to register to vote, choose to vote early, and vote by mail—millions have ballots automatically mailed to their homes for each election—and, thanks to the Voting Information Project, Google, and other partners, receive polling place and ballot information with a simple swipe on their smartphones. Although critical work remains to be done to extend the reach of these advances, they represent dramatic steps toward modernizing the field of election administration. But we cannot stop here. In spite of this progress, voter turnout across the United States declined last year to levels not seen since World War II. [Stanford Social Innovation Review]

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

2 thoughts on “In The Know: Schools relying more heavily on substitutes amid teacher shortage

  1. Speaker Steele’s initiative is certainly better than most of what has been attempted in OK sentencing reform since the failure of the mid-1990s legislation which would have set up a system that led to lower crime and closed prisons in North Carolina when enacted at the same time. What we need from the stories being provided are answers to questions such as these:

    1. Do the counties have mechanisms in place to guarantee diversion of the new funding from reform “savings” to the intended areas or will they simply go into county coffers to offset property tax and other losses from worsening county budget situations and thus made available for usual county spending?

    2. Are successful treatment and other providers foreseen by the reforms actually available and accessible in those counties to diverted offenders, that is, do we have an inventory of what services are available where and how effective are they likely to be?

    3. Are auditing or evaluation mechanisms set up to provide feedback on reform effectiveness or to prevent fly-by-night service providers from setting up shop to glom onto state dollars?

    4. Will counties be provided funding in advance of the “savings” to get the programs blended into their services since the actual dollars “saved” aren’t immediately available, or will they have to wait until a pool of dollars has actually been documented?

    5. The $17,000 per inmate cost cited by Speaker Steele is really just the number of corrections dollars divided by number of inmates and varies by level of security facility. Will savings be calculated on all inmates, even those not likely to be beneficiaries of the reforms, such as “lifers” who cost more, or just those at lower levels who cost less but are more likely to receive the reforms?

    6. The $17,000 per inmate cost does not translate into $17,000 saved per every would-be inmate diverted. Diverting 50 inmates from a 500 bed facility is not a savings of $850,000 if the facility remains open and its overall costs remain the same, which is the likely result. Will “savings” be held until such a point as to which an actual facility can be closed down?

    7. If an actual facility is closed down, will all or some of its employees go to work in other state facilities, thereby negating much of the savings?

    8. If the answer to #7 is “yes,” how will that be calculated into set-aside “savings” and, if not, how much will the state have to come up with to deal with the displaced employees and their families, not to mention assistance to the counties and towns in which the facility was located, meaning less “saved” than originally contemplated?

    9. Are mechanisms available to monitor any changes in charging behavior and other options that prosecutors and/or judges may develop to “work around” the reforms to maintain current levels of sentences and incarceration to prevent the reforms from seeing their potential?

    There are bound to be other questions, but these will do for now. As stated, these reforms are better than most recent efforts, in large part because they involved more than the usual “stakeholders” at the table, stake holders who held stakes over anything that might threaten their power, position, and prestige in the status quo system. For that alone, Speaker Steele has jumped the state very far forward in the policy reform effort. But the devil is always in the you know what, and, with the state and counties in fiscal hardship, what capacities for implementation exist, what counts as savings and what mechanisms are available for subverting good intentions need to be thought through and dealt with before we can get our hopes up. Otherwise, failure may occur that sets the state back yet another decade or two behind the states that have managed to combine public safety provision with reduced costs and incarceration.

  2. i’ve just found WEB duBois, and i’m guilt-stricken about this discovery. why didn’t i know him earlier.
    i’m really gratified to know and have always supported FLOTUS michelle obama’s Empower the Girls global initiative. Yes, the woman is generally the one who lifts the family out of its hopeless, angry, embittered status. While i’m glad for the opportunity afforded her to work outside the home, i’m sorry for the decrease in time she spends at home – looking after her family, esp. the children and our future.

    as an Okie, i’m really saddened by an equally sad circumstance: the low status, respect accorded teachers. yes, our state budget is a telling evidence of this fact. as that Cuba Gooding remarked: “Show me the money.” When we returned to Oklahoma, a sage observed: “Do you know that we pay more to someone to fix our plumbing than to teach our children.” i didn’t believe him – and i’ve found out differently.
    AND all i could do and did was to discourage my two smart children from going into teaching – by my choice to drop out. No, i did not leave the state; they both did, as did that new teacher who went to Texas. i’m sure many others did as well.

    However, i’m happy for your work in highlighting the sorry state of affairs here and proposing a few solutions. Congratulations!

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