Oklahoma debate over US history overshadows education cuts, critics say

By Renee Lewis

While Oklahoma lawmakers debate controversial funding cuts for an Advanced Placement (AP) United States history course, critics say the measure is a politicized distraction. Instead, they say, the legislators should focus on the more pressing issue of the state’s underfunded education system.

The bill proposed last week by Republican state representative Dan Fisher attempts to appease critics who say the curriculum places too much emphasis on the darker periods of U.S. history, despite overwhelming support for the course among high school teachers and college professors nationwide.

“We don’t want our tax dollars going to a test that undermines our history,” Fisher said last week while debating the bill in committee.

But the bill has angered education experts who believe it overshadows the greater threat to education posed by insufficient school funding.

“The current bill is really just simply a bad idea and a very misguided effort,” said Robert Jackson, an associate professor at the University of Tulsa. “But Oklahoma is scandalously underfunded for primary and secondary education. That’s to my mind the issue that needs the most political attention.”

Since the Great Recession, Oklahoma has implemented the most stringent education cuts across the country. State funding is down over 20 percent per pupil, according to David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a think tank.

Last week, House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman announced there would be no money for teacher raises in 2015. And proposals for more education funding — that would address teacher shortages and increasing the number of school days, for example — would likely not even be heard by the legislature due to a projected $600 million budget shortfall, local media reported.

Amid historic economic constraints — and other spending priorities — education has received a dwindling share of the state budget, according to Blatt.

“Legislators have passed bills saying each year transportation is guaranteed $60 million in funding increase regardless of what the budget situation is,” Blatt said. “That has also contributed to the squeeze for funding in other areas. Schools are really struggling to keep up.”

Meanwhile, supporters of the current AP history guidelines question why legislators are challenging a course they say offers students a balanced analysis of U.S. history.

“It offers a sophisticated understanding of intercultural relationships between groups in the U.S.,” said Ben Keppel, professor of African American history at the University of Tulsa. He said scholars from historically black universities and a diverse array of teachers — from public colleges to Ivy League schools — contributed to the AP curriculum.

The course’s focus on African-American politics during the civil rights movement might have focused too strongly on figures like Martin Luther King Jr. as opposed to other voices, Keppel said. Overall, though, he said the curriculum is a vast improvement over what he was taught decades ago.

Attempts to defund the program would hurt students’ chances at academic success, he said.

“I hope that educators around the state and parents around the state will see this as hurting the competitiveness of our students to get into excellent colleges,” Keppel said. “I really wish that people who are pushing this very bad idea would actually look at what teachers are doing in the classroom and think about what history is.”



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