SCHOOL is back in session — or soon will be throughout Oklahoma. Children will be busy in their classrooms and educators will concern themselves with the teaching of reading, writing, math and other important lessons.
What happens inside the schoolhouse doors is what matters most to parents. Yes, they worry about test scores. They worry about teacher quality. They care about whether their children have art and music and PE. They don't care so much about the state of education funding until they see it through the eyes of their children. And why should they?
The polarizing rhetoric in the last few years over the state of education is disheartening and unproductive. Lawsuits and elections haven't even begun to bridge the gap between policy and reality. We've been urging for some time now — ever since State Question 744 and its blank-check-for-education approach failed miserably — that the state needs a serious conversation about education.
Funding has to be part of that conversation, but it's not the only one.
Change typically moves slowly across public education. So it's no wonder that Oklahoma school officials feel run over by the comparatively rapid pace of reforms hitting schools. But as evidenced in recent months, policymakers have yet to seriously put pencil to paper about what those reforms will cost, and perhaps more important, how to pay for them. Sure, we've seen estimates, but one huge reform — an end to social promotion for third-graders who aren't reading on grade level — hasn't fully taken effect. The work to shore up reading instruction is well under way.
Neither have those cost estimates included the work that must take place in higher education to better prepare teachers for real classrooms with real students who have real challenges. The conversation about cost must be wrapped in a larger conversation about our state's values as they relate to education. What do we expect of our schools, not just in test scores but also in terms of opportunity and producing well-rounded students? What do we expect of our teachers and students?
This will be a hard discussion. Many are content to fling mud at school choice with the incessant refrain of how reformers are out to dismantle public education. That's hogwash. While it sometimes seems as though traditional public schools are a bastion of mediocrity, excellence can be found in them for any who care to look.
With the occasional exception, most of those involved in the polarizing dialogue really do want what's best for kids, even if they have different ideas about what that is. Someone needs to claim the middle ground and demand that the conversation move forward.
The sooner, the better, for the state and our kids.