Oklahoma education budget cuts end popular programs, have big impact

State funding reductions for a number of programs are expected to have a lasting impact on programs such as adult education and teacher professional development in Oklahoma.
BY MEGAN ROLLAND mrolland@opubco.com Modified: July 3, 2011 at 8:32 am •  Published: July 3, 2011
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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 endorsed by lawmakers.

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.