Of all the cuts made to Oklahoma education since 2010, none have drawn more rancor, scorn or criticism than the $18 million slashed from a fund filled with special programs
The high-profile programs in what was once a half-billion dollar “activities fund” budget have been slowly reduced in the past two years, and last week the state Education Board zeroed out a number of allocations for fiscal year 2012.
Included in the cuts was a $15 million program that provides bonuses to almost 3,000 teachers who have earned National Board Certification, an 18-month professional development program that is an intensive look at teacher performance.
The $5,000 bonuses were intended as an incentive to increase the number of teachers going through the rigorous process of becoming board certified.
“I think teachers are just disappointed, and they'd like to see this revisited,” said Lisa Ummel-Ingram, a fifth-grade teacher at Wheeler Elementary School in Oklahoma City, who just renewed her board certification.
“Teachers are going to understand a year for the most part. It's happening in our homes, it's happening in our schools. It has to be happening at the state level.”
Ummel-Ingram said the big fear is that the loss of bonuses as well as funding for scholarships that pay the $2,000 program fee is a vote of no-confidence for the entire program.
That fear also affects other programs that suffered big budget cuts or a complete loss of funding.
But state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said that is not the case.
“Every teacher I've ever talked to that's National Board certified, you can see the commitment in their eyes and hear it in their voice,” Barresi said. “You can tell you're talking to a teacher that has a deeper understanding of their craft. It was a very, very difficult decision.”
But Barresi said times of budget reductions can be an opportunity to refocus funds toward the true mission of a department.
“When funds go down, you say ‘all right, what are we about,' and this department is about teaching and learning,” Barresi said.
Her decisions on budget cuts for the activities fund were driven by those two priorities, she said.
Adult, alternative education programs
Lost was $2.3 million in funding for adult education programs across the state that help adults receive GED diplomas, learn how to read, or learn to speak English. That money was tied to about $6 million in federal matching grants, and Barresi said the state is working to make sure programs still receive their federal funds.
“We have just a huge need for these services, and it's a shame that they cut it like this,” said Jessica Martinez-Brooks, director of Community Outreach and Education with Oklahoma City Community College. “I am shocked that it actually happened.”
The program at OCCC serves about 3,000 students a year and always has a long waiting list.
Martinez-Brooks said the program is receiving a cut of about $203,000 but will be able to maintain some services. OCCC provides the program with support that will enable it to receive its federal matching grant.
“There are some that really have a lot more reliance on these state matching funds, especially those in rural communities,” she said.
Funding for some of the state's most at-risk students also was reduced by 4.7 percent, when the budget for several alternative education academies was cut.
Damon Gardenhire, spokesman for the Education Department, said that cut equates to about $62,000 for six alternative education programs in Oklahoma City Public Schools.
A number of programs that exist to make teachers better at what they do will receive no funding in fiscal year 2012.
“I think that's huge for our state,” said Ted Gillispie, executive director of the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation. “We keep saying we want to attract the best and the brightest but then we don't support them, and by support I don't mean just the National Board bonuses. It's real demoralizing.”
Gillispie's program received about $1 million in funding every year to provide scholarships for teachers to go through the National Board Certification process. That money is gone.
The commission also administered a teacher training program known as Literacy First, which also was not funded this year, to the tune of about $3 million.
“It has had a real marked improvement on kids learning to read,” Gillispie said.
He said schools that implemented the program — a full three-year process — scored an average of eight to 15 points higher than the state average on standardized test results.
The commission will use revolving fund money to continue support for schools in the middle of the Literacy First program, but Gillispie said those funds will be depleted by 2013, and no additional schools will be able to start the program next year.
Barresi said all of those are good programs and that she regretted the necessary budget cuts.
She said she hates to lose other professional development programs, too, such as the $1.1 million cut for Great Expectations, a program geared toward improving the culture in elementary schools.
She lamented the loss of the $663,785 creativity building A+ Schools program that integrates arts into education.
Filling the gap
School districts and education programs across the state are working to fill the gap in funding through private donations, federal funds and various creative solutions.
Lori Dickinson, executive director of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said teachers in the state's largest district can still pursue National Board Certification through a scholarship fund established with the foundation by generous donations.
“I think you lose some momentum,” Dickinson said. “We have some financial support for teachers, and we will try to support as many as we can.”
She said the idea behind the $1 million endowment was that Oklahoma City could encourage more of its teachers to pursue certification if a scholarship fund were leveraged with state scholarships and the bonus incentive.
Last year, the scholarships were cut from $5,000 to $3,900 because of financial strain, and some districts elected to supplement the bonuses with their own funds to provide full compensation for their board-certified teachers.
Oklahoma City Public Schools will continue its Great Expectations initiative despite the state cuts, and a number of districts use federal money for professional development programs.
Barresi said the department is working on a number of large-scale reforms and changes that will improve education and also increase efficiency.
“We're not going to let this stop us,” she said. “We're going to continue to move forward.”