BY MIKE RAY
Because of repeated state budget cuts in recent years, public school students and teachers should prepare themselves for packed classrooms, scarce supplies and outdated textbooks when classes start this school year, Mid-Del Supt. Rick Cobb advised recently during a public forum.
In addition, many students will have new teachers because hundreds of educators have retired, moved out of state, or have given up teaching for a more lucrative profession. The State Board of Education approved 304 emergency teaching certificates on Thursday, a one-month record. In contrast, the board authorized about 1,060 emergency certificates in the 2015-16 school year in order to fill teaching vacancies.
“Making sure kids are properly educated is a sign of an enlightened society,” said Rep. David Perryman. But that is becoming progressively more difficult in Oklahoma because of the constant budget reductions, the Chickasha Democrat indicated. Perryman noted that Mark Twain wisely observed that, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other.”
Cobb and Perryman were the featured speakers July 28 for the “Newsmakers Series” held at Full Circle Bookstore in northwest Oklahoma City, sponsored by The Oklahoma Observer and owner/editor Arnold Hamilton.
All three are well-versed in the topic of Oklahoma education. Besides being the Mid-Del’s chief administrative officer, Cobb formerly was the assistant superintendent of Moore schools. Perryman earned his undergraduate degree in education, and his father was a school teacher for 40 years. And Hamilton and his wife both were graduated from Midwest City public schools.
The legislative appropriation for public schools is lower now than it was in 2009, ledgers reflect. “We’re not asking for more money,” Cobb told the audience of concerned parents and active and retired teachers. “Just don’t give us less.”
Legislative appropriations for public primary and secondary schools declined for three consecutive years [2010-12], and public education received a standstill appropriation for the 2016 school year [no decrease but no increase, either], records show.
The cutbacks have resumed again; the appropriation for school year 2016-17 is $58 million lower than it was for last school year.
Cuts to public education have been deeper in Oklahoma than in any other state in the nation, Hamilton said – approximately 25% since the 2008 recession. Oklahoma ranks 48th among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia in teacher pay and 49th in spending per student, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Meanwhile, enrollment in public schools has grown by 46,553 students in the past eight years, to an average daily membership of 688,274 in 2016-16, according to the State Department of Education.
“Everybody has doubled up and is doing extra work,” Cobb said, but eventually that leads to career burnout. As an illustration, he said a Mid-Del Spanish teacher who taught 166 students on any given day last year quit at the end of the school term. And Perryman’s wife, Jo, recently left teaching for a job in banking.
“We have taken unfair advantage of our teachers,” Perryman said. “They’ve consistently done more with less.”
The state budget deficit for Fiscal Year 2017-18 is already $613 million. That’s the sum of one-time revenues the Legislature siphoned off this year to plug the record $1.3 billion hole in the state budget created by reducing the state income tax without replacing it with other revenue sources, slashing the gross production tax when crude oil was at record highs of $100 per barrel, and authorizing a host of tax credits and tax exemptions.
“We are depleting state revenues to the point that we cannot properly fund core services,” Cobb asserted.
Mid-Del schools imposed “over $5 million in cuts this year,” Cobb said. “Most of that was personnel, staff positions we lost.” In addition, “We’re not funding library services the way we need to, and we have no new textbooks.”
Because of the state budget gap, the State Board of Education diverted the entire $33 million allocation that was earmarked for new school textbooks, and $40 million in support for programs such as alternative education and remedial student services also was shifted to other areas.
School foundations, churches and parents’ groups have donated funds and have held fund-raisers to procure supplies needed for schools, “but it doesn’t fill the hole that the lack of state funding has created,” Cobb said.
More than 100 school districts have cut back to four-day weeks as a means of reducing expenses. “Those are the kinds of things that get the attention of parents,” Perryman said, especially since day-care centers don’t have special one-day rates, and finding ways to keep teenagers occupied and out of trouble when their parents are at work and not around to monitor their behavior is difficult to do.
About 70% of the students who attend Mid-Del schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Cobb said. “That’s one reason why we haven’t gone to a four-day week.”
In yet another, related matter, Perryman noted that Oklahoma has children in the sixth grade “who have never experienced adequate funding for their schools, and who have been subjected to five different sets of academic standards.”
Hamilton asked Cobb and Perryman both to comment on Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposal to convene a special session in which the Legislature would approve a teacher pay raise. The salary increase would be financed from $140.8 million that’s still available because General Fund allocation reductions imposed during the second mid-year revenue failure this year were deeper than necessary.
“It’s election year,” Cobb replied.
Perryman pointed out that the “surplus” is one-time revenue that would be devoted to a recurring, perennial expense. “Anyone who thinks that’s a good idea misunderstands fiscal policy,” he said.
Hamilton also mentioned the unusually high number of educators who filed for legislative seats this year. “It’s a reaction to a decade of frustration,” Cobb said.
– Mike Ray is media director for the Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus; this post first appeared on his Facebook page.
Photo: Mid-Del Superintendent Rick Cobb, left, listens as state Rep. David Perryman discusses the state of public education in Oklahoma. Photo courtesy Mid-Del Schools.