Since the 2008 recession, Oklahoma has led the nation. In the percentage of cuts made to school funding, that is.
According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, per-pupil spending has decreased by nearly 23 percent in Oklahoma.
34 states reduced education funding after the recession, and while a giant recession may seem like a decent reason to cut education funding, in the long run it will cause more problems than it solves.
One problem is that—surprise!—cuts to education harm students‘ education. This may have a ripple effect when those students try to get into college or try to get jobs later in life.
According Kathryn McNutt of NewsOK, “More than one-third of freshman at Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities can’t handle the mathematics courses because there are not enough good high school math teachers to prepare them.”
As a result, in the 2013-2014 school year college students in Oklahoma spent 2.89 million dollars on non-credit coursework in order to catch up on skills and knowledge they failed to receive in high school, according to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
To compound the problem, college students who are good at math often go into careers such as engineering or computer programing. Few look at the 35 thousand a year they would get as a high school teacher and decide that is what they want to do.
This brings us to the second, more immediate problem that has arisen due to low education spending: a severe teacher shortage. In the Oklahoma public school system 600 teaching positions have been eliminated since last year, and yet there are still 1,000 teaching vacancies. These vacancies, according to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, are largely due to the low teacher salaries that are offered in Oklahoma.
Last year Governor Fallin said, “Our economy is now growing after several long years of recession. As our revenue grows, I am absolutely committed to continuing to build on the recent funding gains we have made in our schools. Specifically, I would like to see money set aside for teacher pay raises to help us attract and retain the best teachers in our classrooms.”
This commitment is yet to be seen.
The Oklahoman teacher shortage is occurring at a time when student enrollment is growing. In a frantic effort to deal with the teacher-student gap, many school districts are trying to obtain record-breaking numbers of emergency teaching certificates.
Such certificates would allow people who are not certified teachers to become temporary teachers in order to fill the shortage. This means people who have not completed basic training or basic higher education requirements will be in charge of educating Oklahoman youth for the foreseeable future.
Shawn Hime, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, is fed up with low teacher salaries. “Saying we don’t have the money for teacher pay raises is no longer an acceptable excuse. Schools are doing the best they can under the circumstances, but we have to ask ourselves: Are we really OK with 5- and 6- year olds who will go without a teacher trained to develop young readers? Are we really OK with eliminating high-level science classes because we refuse to pay teachers a competitive wage?”
Tulsa Public Schools specifically has had 20 percent of its certified teaching positions, which amounts to 568 teachers, leave in the last 14 months.
Teacher morale is low in Oklahoma. Oklahoman college graduates with degrees in education have little incentive to look for employment in their home state. Some who have family ties in Oklahoma choose to live in-state but commute across state lines for work.
When asked if she had ever considered teaching in a different state, Kendall-Whittier art teacher Kathleen Walker said, “Every single year Texas calls me! Kansas and Arkansas are close by and pay better. I sometimes wonder how we keep any teachers at all. My family lives in Oklahoma or I would be gone.”
Ken Ramey, part of the Siloam Spring School District in Arkansas, says they have teachers from Tulsa, Claremore, Grove and Vinita working in their schools.
Ramey said, “We have had wonderful teachers coming to us with experience along with strong content knowledge. Our children benefit from well-prepared teachers, and Oklahoma has sent us some really well-trained, experienced teachers who have contributed strongly to our school system.”
The effects of poor funding are evident. Oklahoma, which spends a total of 7,672 dollars per student each academic year (this number includes local, state and federal money) is ranked in 44th place on the list of 2015 Best High Schools. California, ranked second on the same list, currently spends 9,200 dollars a student, and paid nearly ten thousand dollars a student before the recession hit.
In the 2013-2014 school year, 36 US states saw their high school graduation rates climb. Oklahoma was among the five states whose graduation rates dropped.
A recent plan to raise the much-needed education funding in Oklahoma is a proposed penny sales tax. It is estimated this tax would cost an average Oklahoman family 262 dollars a year, but would annually raise over 600 million dollars for education.
The poorest 20 percent of Oklahomans would pay 90 dollars a year, and the top 1 percent would pay over 1500 dollars a year. However, when looking at percentages it becomes evident that this tax will affect the poor more, as a larger chunk of their income is spent on retail purchases.
The Oklahoman education system needs the money: there’s no doubt about that. But many teachers wonder if this is the correct way to raise funds.
Other states have tried similar methods. In Iowa over one billion dollars have been raised for improving schools with a penny tax.
In Arizona, however, the tax plan did not stop the state from making deep education cuts—some of the worst in the country.
Local Kendall-Whittier teacher Rita Ballew is against the penny tax proposal because, “the monies would be redirected by government officials and very little would actually trickle down to teachers. For example, casinos were supposed to be the big answer to the education funding problems and yet when casinos contributed…the state/federal government took monies away.”
The Oklahoma government has come up with many ‘cures’ for education, including taxes on horse racing and casinos. This money goes into a general fund, but then the state contributes less money to schools. The result? Education sees no increase in funding.
Walker quoted the same concern about the penny tax. “We were promised big bucks with the pari-mutuel gambling thing and [we’ve] hardly seen any of that.”
Schools tried to compensate with “local bonds to keep our technology up to date, and buildings maintained,” according to Walker. “However, that isn’t always enough.”
Without additional funding, schools face a variety of problems. Ballew explained, “There is no money for the consumable products I buy out of my almost empty pockets, and yet we are asked to teach hands-on lessons. No money is given to teachers to spend on classroom supplies that are staples to the effectiveness of our teaching.”
This is a problem in many states. According to a former teacher and superintendent of Montpelier Public Schools in Montpelier, North Dakota, “When we ordered supplies, teachers knew that was all they were going to get. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars out of pocket for their students.”
The federal government contributes to education, but it can’t shoulder the entire cost. At some point the states need to step up and give education the funding it requires.
Meanwhile Walker believes that, “The biggest problem [in education] is class size…the one thing schools could do to combat [poverty] is to lower class size. But that requires salary money, and enough money to keep teachers in the state. A teacher with 18-20 kids can have quality face time daily with every student…[but] every child over 20 feels like 5 more added to the class.”
Without proper educational spending students don’t get field trips, science enrichment programs, tutors and—most importantly—enough teachers to ensure that every child gets daily face time.
If Walker could make a change to the Oklahoma school system, she would want a “smaller student to teacher ratio.”
Ballew answered the same question with, “Let teachers teach and pay them with what they are worth! Support teachers with supplies they need in order to effectively teach their content.”