It's the most wonderful time of the year for parents. No, not Christmas. Back to school.
The celebrating should be shorter than usual this year, since schools are opening with less than half-hearted support of our elected leaders, their eternal lip service to public education notwithstanding.
Some pertinent facts:
In the last five years, the number of Oklahoma students jumped more than 25,000, yet per pupil spending declined more than 20 percent -- third largest percentage drop in America, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, that is an average decline of $706 per student between FY 2008 and FY 2013.
"The result," according to the non-partisan Oklahoma Policy Institute, "is larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, and less support from libraries, counselors, special education specialists and others."
One of my Facebook friends, who's taught for 38 years in suburban Oklahoma City, wrote recently to express her frustration with the failure of legislators to put their money -- or perhaps I should say, the taxpayers' money -- where their mouths are.
"My entire career has been filled with promises from legislators," she noted. "Nothing has changed since I began my profession.
"I do not recall any legislation recently that has helped one child in the classroom or a teacher. Oklahoma legislators have not done things for teachers. Legislators have done things TO TEACHERS and public education which is more hoop jumping."
It is a refrain I hear routinely when visiting with teachers from across the state.
Unfunded mandates from Oklahoma City. Increasing emphasis on standardized testing, not real learning. Less classroom flexibility. Mediocre pay and few raises.
All combine to create a perfect storm in which some of the nation's best-trained, brightest and most enthusiastic teachers are walking away from the profession they love.
Earlier this millennium, fresh-out-of-college teachers lasted on average five years. One of the state's leading education experts told me recently the mode now for inner-city teachers is one.
One stinkin' year.
This is the crisis of our times.
What made this nation the most creative, cutting-edge, prosperous, economic juggernaut the world has ever seen is universal public education.
Ask anyone who started in abject poverty and graduated from an Ivy League school. Ask any member of the Greatest Generation who took advantage of the GI Bill.
I know what some of you are thinking: Damn teachers. All they want is more money. And they only work nine months of the year.
Believe me, teachers pack more into those nine months than the rest of us do in 12. And for all our rhetoric about valuing education, we've never really elevated teaching (or its pay) to levels seen in other industrialized nations.
It's worth remembering that public school teachers in America take all comers. Some brilliant, some average, some developmentally challenged. Some are rich, way too many are poor. Some have supportive parents, others are virtually on their own.
Whether you want to admit it or not, money matters -- especially what a society collectively commits to its most important government service: educating future generations, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion or sexual preference.
As my friend, former Tulsa Community College instructor Sharon Martin wrote in a recent Oklahoma Observer essay:
"In the United States, there is a correlation between a state's per pupil spending and per capita income. In Oklahoma, where we rank fourth in the percentage of citizens who are hungry, we also rank near the bottom on per pupil spending.
"Educated citizens are good for the state. They are healthier. They raise healthier children. They pay more in taxes to fund education and other necessities...."
As it happens, Oklahoma's elected elite has a golden opportunity to do the right thing by public education.
If Gov. Mary Fallin, as expected, orders lawmakers into special session later this year to consider lawsuit reform, the governor should expand the agenda to include school funding lost because of State Question 766.
The constitutional amendment eliminated taxes on all intangible personal property, which means less revenue for governmental entities -- including schools - supported by ad valorem (or property) taxes.
When voters approved the tax cut in 2012, no one was quite sure how much revenue would be lost. But now, we know: The Oklahoma Tax Commission reports 90 of the 250 or so public service companies that qualify for the SQ 766 tax break took advantage of it, costing schools $60 million.
Since school districts receive 65 percent of all those property taxes, the cost of SQ 766 to schools exceeded $30 million -- on top of the 20 percent decline in per pupil state spending since FY 2008.
As expected, the anti-public education crowd -- led by the reactionary rightwing editorial page of the state's largest newspaper, the Oklahoman -- is howling about any effort to expand a special session agenda to help public ed offset the ill financial effects of SQ 766.
The Oklahoman, of course, is in lock-step with the anti-public education cabal that views schools, first and foremost, as profit centers for big business, not as academic centers focused on helping each child maximize his or her talents.
Ironically, some of these very greedsters are most adept at misportraying teachers, their unions and supporters as the money grubbers who always want more, more, more. Of course, any knuckle-dragger is smart enough to know that Oklahoma has never funded public education anywhere close to the national average, much less at a level that could be expected to produce across-the-board academic excellence.
So, just once, how about we give it a try? How about we fund Oklahoma public schools at the same per pupil levels as, say, Massachusetts or other higher-funded, higher-performing (academically) states.
Heck, we can even get fiscal experts to produce a per-pupil funding formula that adjusts for the cost-of-living differences between New England and Oklahoma.
If we finally spend the money and after a reasonable test period -- say, five or 10 years or so -- it isn't working, then fine: full steam ahead on enriching the big cigars who want to make money off private education (the same folks who gave you that standardized testing debacle last spring).
I'd rather put my money into those dedicated professionals who view educating children as a calling and who want to see every student succeed -- teachers like my Facebook friend.
"I have been told," she wrote, "you teachers need to stop whining. Well ... silence is acceptance ... speak UP for things that matter ... teachers do and they are squashed in the press almost always (Oklahoman).
"I have expressed quite a bit today. I will die a frustrated Oklahoma public teacher."
Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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