BY CLAUDIA SWISHER
An open letter to members of the state House and Senate education and budget committees and to State Superintendent Janet Barresi:
I have deliberately waited to write to you all about my concerns until I could clearly see the ramifications of the State Department of Education [SDE] budget enacted last month. I did not want my note to be a knee-jerk reaction to the death of the National Board Certified Teacher [NBCT] stipends, when clearly, there is much more at stake for our schools.
I am an NBCT, and I’ve seen the state’s commitment to me dwindle, and now end. But this letter is NOT about that betrayal, and I truly consider it a betrayal of a covenant. This letter is about the legislative session just concluded and the budget. I see some huge difficulties ahead for schools as we attempt to respond to the mandates with less money from the state.
Let’s start with the third grade reader law. Now students who don’t score proficient on ONE test, ONE day will be retained over teacher and parent objections. Supposedly the law contains supports and opportunities for teachers and students to gain the knowledge they need so all students can shine on that one test, one day. But we know Reading Sufficiency funds have already been diverted, and the new SDE budget calls for zeroing-out Literacy First, a proven program, a program that directly links to higher reading scores. You’re telling us, the teachers of the state we MUST make every student proficient, but you are allowing funds to be withdrawn from that effort. Schools are supposed to perform miracles, but there will be no support from the state.
Schools will now be graded on our test scores … one test, one day. And yet, the SDE budget has zeroed out two programs that show teachers how to build strong communities in their classrooms, and how to bring out the very best in every child. Great Expectations and A+ Schools are two other programs that make a difference in schools. They build the foundation that allows every child to feel honored and respected. That inspires every child to perform above and beyond on assessments, because that’s what community members do. So, once again, we in the schools of Oklahoma are expected to create schools that all are above average, but the policymakers in our state have withdrawn the very tools that will help us.
Many of my students, including my own daughter, often need the services of Alternative Education programs … they need more one-on-one attention, they need support through traumatic times in their lives. They need something different. The Alt-Ed programs in Oklahoma are strong and effective. The Foundation for Excellence honors and recognizes these programs at its annual banquet. But the SDE budget calls for impressive cuts in those programs. Now, students will be forced to stay in schools that do not serve their needs, and more will drop out since we can’t give them what they need. When – not if, but when – they drop out, that will reflect on the schools who will be penalized through a lower AYP number … and a lower ‘grade’ from the state. Once again, support is withdrawn to the schools but we will still be held accountable for students’ lack of progress in school because of your neglect.
This all does tie back to National Board and your betrayal of the NBCTs in the state. I have worked as a candidate support provider for National Board candidates for 10 years. I have read thousands of portfolio entries as teachers analyze their work in and out of their classrooms. I see what professional development opportunities make a difference, for teachers and for students. I see the evidence of student impact because teachers have attended professional development, they’ve learned, they’ve brought it back into their classroom, and their students have learned. I see the iron-clad evidence of student achievement, both on standardized testing and in classroom behavior and confidence.
Guess which programs are mentioned over and over? Guess which programs make a difference, impact student achievement? I’m sure you can … Literacy First, Great Expectation, A+Schools. These programs change lives. But they won’t any more. Teachers will now be expected to change lives without that support. We’re mandated to change lives; we’ll be evaluated on whether or not we change lives. We’ll be held accountable, but your neglect will make our job impossible.
The state of Oklahoma entered into a covenant with its teachers over 10 years ago. We were told, “If you hold yourself up to the most rigorous standards of your profession, if you risk a deep, honest analysis and reflection of your practice, in and out of the classroom, if you are willing to take the most challenging assessments of your knowledge of the art and science of your teaching, of the pedagogy and content of your profession, AND if you will stay in the classroom in a public school in Oklahoma, we will reward your dedication to the children of Oklahoma. We will provide a $5,000 annual stipend as our thanks for making a difference to our state.” And nearly 3,000 of us answered that challenge. Hundreds of us have renewed our certification at our own expense, because we see the value of this experience.
Your support, though, has slipped. We held up our end of the bargain. You, for two years, have refused to send the FICA payment to the districts when you send the money for our stipends. Some districts take that money out of their own dwindling funds and pay, even though the payment is clearly YOUR responsibility, and not theirs. Most larger districts, like mine, have no choice but to pass that payment, clearly YOUR responsibility, on to us. So, I pay YOUR portion of my FICA payment.
Last year, you placed a moratorium on scholarships, and the support system involved with the scholarships. Your action actually closed down a successful graduate program at Southern Nazarene University, MACI, built on the Five Core Propositions of National Board, and culminating in a master’s degree, and support to go through the National Board process. SNU feared, rightly so, that your commitment to the National Board process was waffling, and they went another direction with their program. Your actions had devastating effects statewide. It went far beyond just not offering scholarships. An entire, nation-wide support system came to a screeching halt and a university program was closed down.
Then, this year, days before the stipends were to be paid, in a mysterious sleight-of-hand I still don’t understand, our stipends were suddenly shorted … also by you. Teachers who count on this ‘stipend’ to make ends meet, learned they wouldn’t be getting the $5000, minus the $300+ for FICA. Many teachers had to scramble to pay bills another way.
Now, the coup de grace. Superintendent Barresi never asked for a penny for the NBCT stipends in her budget request to the Legislature this year. I have that from two people who saw her budget. She never asked for the funds. She gives lip service to the excellence of NBCTs and when she needed our fund to cover her Speech Pathologist friends, she talked it up. But all her talk of heartbreaking decisions, and being devastated are all sound bites, delivered with her sad, sad smile. Sound bites that are meaningless.
She has known since shortly after she took office that she was planning to zero out the NBCT stipends; I now wonder how many legislators noticed her omission. How many of you knew this budget would not include NBCT stipends. I wonder how many of you have known all along and haven’t told us.
This brings up an interesting issue that several NBCTs have mentioned and will be pursuing. The statute that is our covenant states clearly “subject to the availability of funds … “ NBCTs will be paid their stipends. Well enough; we’ve always understood that. But if Superintendent Barresi never asked for the funds to begin with, how does anyone know if they were not available? If you don’t ask, how do you know what the answer will be? So, the spirit of the statute was broken for certain by her move, and perhaps the letter of the statute. I understand some NBCTs are seeking legal opinions about this move.
So, the covenant is well and finally broken. You all have taken a premier national program of support and destroyed it. You have broken your promise to the teachers and more importantly the students of the state. You have passed repressive laws that demand more and more of us, and you have systematically withdrawn support that could assist us.
Then, add the vouchers law you also passed, which will divert more taxpayer money to support private schools … not for the middle class and poor of our state, not for the 22% of our children who live in poverty, but the children of the richest in our state. Will these private schools be held accountable to the extent we will be? Why ask. We all know the answer.
You pass the laws, you pass the budget. We struggle to make sense of the mandates, to follow the letter of the law, to educate every child, and to make sure every child and every school is above average.
And we do it with less and less and less help from you.
One wonders if you are setting the stage for our ultimate failure.
And why would our own state policymakers want to do that?
Why would our elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction want to do that?
– Claudia Swisher teaches at Norman North High School and is a National Board Certified Teacher. She is an occasional contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. Another of her essays – Stipend Cut Betrays Teachers, Students – appears in the July 10/25 edition of The Observer.