Miami Public Schools in Ottawa County serves about 2,500 K-12 students in seven schools. This year, four school librarian positions were eliminated, leaving the district without a single librarian.
In Newkirk, there is no librarian and no speech or drama classes. In Edmond, elementary school students no longer learn Spanish. In Agra, the band program has been eliminated and there are 45 students in a choir class. In Tulsa, the PTA and school foundations are covering teacher salaries with private funds at several schools. There are no security officers employed in any of Oklahoma City’s elementary schools.
These are just a few of dozens of stories I heard recently when I asked members of a Facebook education group to share examples of how their schools or their children’s schools have been affected by budget cuts in recent years.
We know that over the past decade, cuts in education funding have been severe. State general funding is nearly $180 million less than ten years ago, while K-12 enrollment has grown by over 50,000 students. Adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma’s state general funding of schools is down 28 percent per student compared to a decade ago, far and away the largest cuts in the nation. Oklahoma now spends almost $1,700 per pupil less than our neighboring states and would need to boost spending by over $1.1 billion to reach the national average, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Some of the most visible consequences of budget cuts are widely known. After ten years without an increase in the salary schedule, Oklahoma teachers are now close to the lowest paid in the nation, and teacher are leaving the state or quitting the profession in droves. The worsening teacher shortage has forced the state to issue over 1,800 emergency certifications already this year. Norman Public Schools alone has issued more emergency certifications this year (35) than were issued across the whole state five years ago (31). Over 90 school districts have moved to four-day school weeks as a way to save money and retain underpaid teachers, who can use the extra day to work another job.
Bartlesville Superintendent Chuck McCauley recently told the Tulsa World, “In addition to the five teachers we lost to Kansas last year, we have 12 teachers who are emergency certified. We are hiring people we wouldn’t have even interviewed just a few years ago because there aren’t more qualified applicants.”
Beyond these well-publicized problems, the impact of budget cuts can be seen in just about every district, school, and classroom in the state. Based on personal testimonies, media coverage, and data on teachers, classes and students from the State Department of Education, here are a few ways in which budget cuts are being felt.
Growing Class Sizes
One parent of a Tulsa middle-school student wrote that her daughter’s school just hired a teacher to open up a new section of English/Geography after having 54 in a class all first semester. “They are now down to 40 in each of the three sections, which is better but still sucks,” she wrote. My own son was one of 45 students in a high school drama class last year with an over-matched first-year teacher. Kindergarten classes have grown to over 25 children per classroom in many schools, while upper elementary school classes now commonly have over 30 children.
Overall, there are more than 700 fewer teachers in Oklahoma public schools in the 2017-18 school year than there were in 2013-14, while student enrollment has grown by about 15,000. This has led to growing class sizes for both core courses and electives. Statewide, there are some 4,500 more students taking Algebra I than four years ago, but 2,000 fewer classes being offered, according to numbers from the Department of Education. There are the same number of students taking high school art as four years ago, but there are 150 fewer art classes and 93 fewer art teachers,
Fewer Course Offerings
Along with larger classes, a growing number of schools have eliminated classes and programs, especially in the arts, technology, and foreign languages, the subjects that enrich the learning experience and help prepare students for higher education and employment. A fourth of high schools have eliminated world language classes over a decade and the number of high schools without a single world language class has nearly quadrupled, according to Oklahoma Watch. This year there are about 525 fewer world language classes being offered across the state compared to four years ago. There are 300 fewer arts classes, 500 fewer classes in family and consumer sciences, and some 815 fewer music classes in elementary schools alone. “Each Oklahoma City public school at the elementary level was forced to choose to no longer have music or art,” one teacher wrote. “At my school none of the students receive any art instruction.”
In addition to classroom teachers, many schools have cut librarians and library assistants, counselors, psychologists, speech pathologists, and paraprofessionals. “In Enid, my elementary school has a half-time librarian and a half-time counselor. Each of them are maintaining a full load at both schools,” one parent writes. Statewide, the number of librarians and media consultants is 140 less than four year ago, a 13 percent drop. Although the number of special needs students is increasing, the number of school-based health professionals is flat or declining. Tulsa Public Schools lost twelve of their 40 speech pathologists this year; those who remain must manage caseloads of close to 100 kids. A Putnam City parent wrote that her son’s special education teacher is responsible for serving 54 kids.
Schools are also struggling with less support staff and scarce supplies. A Mill Creek parent writes that their school no longer has a full-time janitor, just someone who works twice a week for ten hours and only does bathrooms. An Oklahoma City teacher says that there are no longer maintenance workers; “principals have to fix things themselves.” A parent of a Bartlesville elementary school students says that their school “has to limit basic supplies like copy paper, paper towels, and trash bags. At the end of the School year, janitors are re-using trash bags and the paper towel dispensers are empty. This is not ok.”
It’s encouraging to see a continued effort among lawmakers to provide teachers a substantial raise. This is essential but it won’t be enough. To address the crisis in our schools we will need more teachers, more staff, more resources, and a more genuine commitment to public education.