BY DAVID PERRYMAN
In 1940 as Jimmy Durante headed to the door of Coleman’s Restaurant in Calabash, NC, he turned to 28-year-old Lucy and with a smile said, “Good Night, Mrs. Calabash.” For the rest of his life, until his death in 1980, every Durante appearance ended with his trademark phrase, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”
As with most entertainers who rose out of vaudeville, Durante’s style included repetitious skits and catchwords, not only phrases, but also songs and mannerisms. His famous “Ah-cha-cha-cha-cha” and self-references to his own nose as the “Big Schnozzola” always brought the house down.
In addition to his “Inka Dinka Doo” skit, one of Durante’s most popular routines originated in 1935 when he appeared on Broadway in the play, Jumbo. In the play, Durante was working for a cash-strapped circus that had more creditors than customers. When the sheriff appeared to seize the assets of the circus, Durante attempted to save his beloved pachyderm, Jumbo, by removing the animal from the circus grounds. As Durante led Jumbo across the stage, the sheriff asked, “Where are you going with that elephant?” and Jimmy responded with the immortal line, “What elephant?”
The skit was performed repeatedly by Durante for years after the Broadway show had closed and from the first day that the audience laughed at the elephant that Jimmy Durante desperately wanted to be invisible, “the elephant in the room” has been a metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is either being blatantly ignored or goes unaddressed.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s K-12 educational system has two elephants in the room, unfair evaluation and a disgraceful lack of funding.
Faced with a debate over how to improve our schools, the dialogue has been hijacked by partisan division and destructive rhetoric. Forces whose goal is to undermine public education pit parents against teachers and instructors against administrators. Standardized testing mandates rob students of a broad and enriched education. A culture of high stakes testing and antagonistic demoralization robs gifted and talented teachers of their spirit to serve our children.
Eliminating high stakes and non-stop standardized testing will eliminate the need to “teach to the test” and help improve our educational system. The result will be that Oklahoma’s quality teachers would be able to provide a more complete learning experience to their students.
Remember, teachers are not afraid of evaluation or accountability. They want the public to know what they do and how well they do it. Oklahoma’s teachers simply want to be assessed in a way that accurately reflects the job they are doing.
While Oklahoma’s public schools are performing as well or better than schools in other states that are comparably funded, that is like being proud of receiving the highest D in the class.
In other words, Oklahoma students are “blowing the socks off” students from other states that are also in the bottom funding tier. That is not good enough for my children and grandchildren and it is not good enough for my neighbor’s children or grandchildren.
State aid funding for Oklahoma’s schools has not recovered from 2008 levels. In fact, the K-12 budget has decreased by $224 million, more than any other state, over the past five years while the student enrollment has increased by more than 32,000.
A new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities validates the existence of the draconian cuts and focuses on dollars used directly in Oklahoma’s K-12 classrooms. According to the study, an estimated $810 per student is cut each year, mostly affecting teacher salaries and shrunk school budgets.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute reports that Oklahoma will soon require children who do not pass a reading test to be retained in the third grade; however the state Legislature zeroed out more than $6 million in funding meant to help students meet these new requirements. That same organization reported that $3 million was eliminated from Literacy First, a proven program for reading instruction.
The elephant does not stop there. OKPolicy also released numbers regarding Oklahoma’s student-teacher ratio. Class size limits in place since 1990 have been suspended because schools cannot afford to meet them.
There is strong evidence that smaller class sizes promote student achievement – particularly in the early grades and for low income students. Many schools are cutting teaching positions to cope with budget cuts. Statewide, the number of students per teacher has increased from 13.7 in the 2007-08 school year to 16.0 in 2010-11.
Get the facts. Engage in the debate. Be vocal. Hold your elected representatives accountable. Let them know your priorities.
Jimmy Durante and Ms. Calabash may both be gone, but the next time you see an elephant in the room, tell it that you want our children’s education properly funded.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives