DUE to the national recession, Oklahoma state funding for schools has been reduced since 2008 even as student numbers increased.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute argues those cuts hurt Oklahoma's economy, particularly due to more than 4,000 jobs being eliminated from public schools from 2009 to 2011.
School funding isn't designed to maximize local payroll, but to educate children. On that count, Oklahoma's education performance during the downturn is encouraging.
This year, for the first time, Oklahoma seniors were required to pass end-of-instruction exams to get a diploma. In 2008, just 53 percent of students passed the Algebra II exam. This year, 74 percent did. Those passing geometry increased from 68 percent to 82 percent. For English III, pass rates rose to 85 percent from 75 percent.
The improved performance occurred even as state funding declined — something for which teachers and students deserve praise. Those tests set minimum learning standards for all students. But college-bound students have also shown improvement. ACT results show the percentage of Oklahoma students meeting college-readiness benchmarks in math increased from 32 percent to 37 percent during the past five years. College readiness in other test areas remained constant.
Once again, student improvement occurred even as state dollars effectively decreased. Funding cuts haven't been as detrimental as critics would have citizens believe. Money matters, but so does how you spend money.
The elimination of 4,000 “education” jobs sounds bad, but those aren't all teaching positions. In the past 20 years, Oklahoma student enrollment increased about 13 percent; the number of support staff surged nearly 20 percent. Many education jobs are administrative, not teaching positions.
Ironically, many who complain about state funding have actually opposed programs that increase per-pupil amounts.
A scholarship program for children with special-needs allows those students to use most of the state funds allocated for their education to pay for private school. A portion remains with the public school, however, boosting district funds. Citizens can get tax credits for contributing to scholarship organizations that help low-income children attend private schools. As private funds allow those students to exit the public system, the tax dollars allotted for their education remains with public schools, benefiting other students. Yet both those programs have been opposed by some officials who simultaneously decry funding cuts.
Those critics like to cite 1990's House Bill 1017 as the ideal reform. But that law is now more than two decades old. Today's students, not even born in 1990, can pull up more information on their phone than many school libraries had when HB 1017 was enacted. The world has changed since 1990; schools can operate much more efficiently than in the past.
Another point: HB 1017 required implementing a high school graduation test by 1993. It took 20-plus years to achieve that goal — and it occurred over the objections of many administrators. Those who tout House Bill 1017 often like its tax increases, but not its accountability standards.
Public schools' economic impact isn't measured by the number of adults employed, but by the number of children given a quality education, including those learning outside traditional venues.
Additional money may help, but it's not enough. For Oklahoma to succeed, our education system must be focused on producing quality graduates, not serving as a jobs bank for adults.