A national education advocacy group says it's time Oklahoma lawmakers provide money to implement standards imposed on public schools the past couple years.
Stand for Children has opened an office in Oklahoma with the goal this year to get money to pay for programs intended to improve learning for students, such as better reading instruction and end-of-high school exams in public schools, said Jonah Edelman, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit.
The group, founded in 1996, has affiliates in 10 other states. Its long-term goal in the state is to get parents more involved with public schools, Edelman said.
The group decided to come to Oklahoma because it feels it can help improve educational outcomes, he said.
Brian Hunt, hired as executive director of Oklahoma's Stand for Children's affiliate, said this year's goal for the group is simple.
“Funding the reforms that are on the books,” said Hunt, a former president of Tulsa's school board.
Legislative budget leaders said they applaud the group's efforts, saying the Republican-controlled Legislature seems to be in favor of setting aside money to pay for the public school changes. Public schools, which this fiscal year gets about one out of every three dollars appropriated by lawmakers, received no additional funds in the budget approved last year.
Public schools in Oklahoma, near the bottom nationally in the state's share of per-pupil funding, got $2.3 billion, the same amount as last year, even though the amount lawmakers appropriated increased from $6.6 billion to $6.8 billion. Common education received about $40 million less in the 2012 fiscal year compared with the previous year.
“I'm incredibly excited to see them come here,” said Sen. Clark Jolley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee. “It's a good organization with good motivation. They're not planning on taking the side of reformers like myself; they're not planning on taking the side of superintendents; they're not planning on taking the side of teachers' unions; they're going to try to take the side of what works.”
Jolley, R-Edmond, said lawmakers should consider funding public school measures that were passed earlier.
“As these reforms go on, many of them are going to be more expensive the further implementation we go,” he said. “I'm going to fight for increased funding specifically on reforms. … We have passed significant reforms over the last few years to our educational system and we're kidding ourselves if we think that those reforms are going to be free.”
Rep. Scott Martin, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, said he is encouraged by the support he's heard for improving funding for public schools this year.
“I have heard a lot of it within our own Republican caucus in the House and certainly have heard it coming from the other side of the rotunda in the Senate,” said Martin, R-Norman. “There's a very strong chance that common education will see some increased revenue this year, particularly in those reform areas.”
Paying for changes
Estimates indicate lawmakers will have about $215 million more to appropriate this fiscal year. Budget leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate said their intent is to allocate additional funds to public schools to pay for changes passed in laws the past couple years, but they haven't started hearing yet from agencies on their budget needs and there is the uncertainty of some federal funds. A last-minute “fiscal cliff” deal avoided federal cuts from being implemented earlier this month and pushed back the deadline for spending cuts until March 1.
“The goal isn't to get funding or to pass reforms, the goal is to increase student achievement so that more students graduate from high school ready for postsecondary training they have to have to make a living,” Edelman said. “Certainly Oklahoma needs to invest more in public education and do so strategically, which is why our focus will be on funding reforms that are on the books to ensure they work. We're believers in the reforms that have passed.”
Edelman said his group will work to secure money to fund the Common Core State Standards, which were developed by state leaders and educators and adopted by Oklahoma and more than 40 other states; legislation passed in 2011 that requires all students to be reading at appropriate levels by the third grade and a measure that requires high school students are proficient in key subjects by passing end-of-instruction exams.
Edelman said his group's Oklahoma affiliate is being funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Inasmuch Foundation.
In addition to Hunt, the Oklahoma affiliate has hired Amber England as its government affairs director. She previously worked for the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
Edelman said more staff will be hired after this year's session ends in late May. Staff will include grass-roots organizers who will recruit and develop leadership of parents who in turn will talk to lawmakers about public school funding needs. Stand for Children also will teach low-income parents how to better support their children's education.
“We're here for the long term,” he said. “It's not about one session or two sessions or three sessions. Our focus is going to be to build a movement of parents across the state and other Oklahomans who care about education.”
It's a good organization with good motivation. They're not planning on taking the side of reformers like myself; they're not planning on taking the side of superintendents; they're not planning on taking the side of teachers' unions; they're going to try to take the side of what works.”
Sen. Clark Jolley,
Chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee