BY MIKE W. RAY
The root cause of many problems in this state, such as poverty and crime, can be traced to a lack of education, yet over the past eight years the Oklahoma Legislature has imposed deeper cuts on education than any other state.
That was the crux of the recent Oklahoma Observer Newsmakers program featuring the Rev. Rep. George Young Sr. and Joe Dorman, a former legislator who is now chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy [OICA].
There’s a “symbiotic relationship” between education and Oklahoma’s myriad problems, said Young, D-Oklahoma City. Issues that were mentioned included:
– Economic development. Its success depends largely on “how well you are educating your people,” Young noted.
– Health indicators. There’s a direct correlation between population areas that have low educational levels and poor health outcomes.
– Criminal behavior. People with limited education are more likely to commit crimes than are well-educated individuals. Yet the Legislature allocates approximately $20,000 annually to incarcerate a convict, or almost seven times more than the $3,050 the state of Oklahoma appropriates in state aid for each public school student, ledgers reflect.
Oklahoma City Public Schools spent about $12,000 per student in 2015, records indicate; state appropriated tax revenue represented 42% of that amount, local district sources accounted for 29%, federal aid constituted 15%, and other sources, such as foundations, etc., 14%. Edmond public schools spent just over $10,000 for each of their students in the 2015-16 school year; of that amount, 43% was state aid, 44% was local tax revenue, 4% was money from Oklahoma County, 9% was federal funding.
The money that Oklahoma taxpayers spend to imprison two convicts each year could pay the salary of one school teacher, Dorman pointed out. And although the agency is called the Department of Corrections, “prisons are not corrective,” he said.
Many Oklahoma legislators are “totally unaware” of conditions outside of their line of sight, Young said. The state Legislature is comprised of many individuals “who do not resonate with the issues” that adversely affect thousands of Oklahomans, he said.
As an example, he referred to the earned income tax credit [EITC]. Earlier this year the Republican-dominated Legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed, a measure that severely scaled back the EITC. That legislation cost more than 5,400 families in Young’s district alone $545,000, ledgers indicate. All of those are low-income working parents who earn approximately $12,000 a year, he said.
Jim Shields, a retired Methodist minister, asserted that the Legislature’s budget cuts have become “sadistic.”
Young reminded the Newsmakers audience that the student population in schools today doesn’t look like it did 20 or 30 years ago. “I have five traditional schools in my legislative district, and probably over half of the students are Hispanic,” the newly re-elected second-term legislator said.
Records of the State Department of Education show that only half of the 688,000 students who attended Oklahoma schools last year were white. Of the other half: 16.21% were Hispanic; 14.28%, Native American; 8.87%, African American/non-Hispanic; 8.38% were of two or more races; 2.26%, Asian or Pacific Islander.
During the 2015-16 school year, nearly one-third of the 40,000 students enrolled in Tulsa Public Schools spoke at least one of 79 languages other than English.
A lot of the children in the five schools in Young’s district receive food “backpacks,” and many of those youngsters give their backpacks to their parents because they, too, are hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat, Young said. Two years ago, 30% of Oklahoma’s children lived in homes where the parent[s] lacked secure employment, according to the OICA.
One-in-four Oklahoma children are food insecure, and nearly 30% rely on food stamps, Dorman said. About 90% of the children in Oklahoma City public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and, “We are dead last in the nation for the summer feeding program for school children,” he added. “We have an estimated 23,000 homeless school children,” Dorman said, and for many Oklahoma children, one or both parents are in prison. More than one-third of Oklahoma’s children live in single-parent households, census data show.
Arnold Hamilton, owner/editor of The Oklahoma Observer, which sponsors the monthly Newsmakers program, asked Dorman and Young to prioritize what steps they would suggest to “improve the plight” of Oklahoma’s children.
Elect legislators who will “give education its rightful due,” Young recommended. “We need a new Legislature,” because it “hasn’t budgeted and financed education the way it should have.” The retired minister hastened to add that his undergraduate degree in college was accounting, “so I am familiar with budgets.”
“We have to shore up our resources,” said Dorman, who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. In particular, myriad tax credits that have been authorized in recent years need to be revisited, he said.
Young encouraged parents to read to their children for at least 30 minutes each day, to instill in them a love of reading, “because if children aren’t reading by the third grade, we’ll lose them.” Two-thirds of Oklahoma fourth-graders in 2015 were not proficient in reading, the OICA lamented.
“We need caseworkers in schools to work with families,” Young suggested. Case managers would “talk with students to find out what problems, if any, they’re having in school or at home.” Then they’d make appointments with a student’s family to find out what services they might need in their home – such as a GED, or job preparation, or CareerTech programs, or drug and alcohol counseling – to help the student perform better in the classroom. Case managers could help students and parents like “steer their lives in a better direction.”
– Mike W. Ray is media director for the state House Democratic Caucus. This posting originally appeared on his Facebook page.