No single line item in the state budget garners more lip service than public schools.
Lawmakers and would-be lawmakers are forever casting themselves as unabashedly pro-education, keenly aware that voters typically list it among the issues most important to them.
Yet, except for approving Gov. Henry Bellmon's groundbreaking House Bill 1017 reforms in 1990, the pro-public schools talk mostly has been just that -- talk.
Oklahoma's spending on K-12 schools -- as a share of the total state budget -- has declined since 2008, from 38.2 percent ($2.5 billion) down to 34.1 percent ($2.3 billion).
The state is now 47th in what it spends on a child's education.
Has Oklahoma stopped growing? Are there fewer students enrolling in public schools? Have costs decreased?
No, no and hell no.
Most of the extraordinary reforms enacted in Bellmon's package are gone -- victims of legislative stinginess.
It doesn't take a PhD to understand that smaller class sizes foster better learning. It's much easier for a teacher to engage 20 students in learning than 30 or 40.
Yet HB 1017's 20-student-maximum is no longer enforced. As thousands of teachers lose their jobs thanks to budget starvation, class sizes explode.
Even worse, lawmakers frequently impose new mandates -- unfunded, of course -- on teachers and school districts, all in a crass effort to make it appear they are working to improve public education.
You can sugarcoat it all you want, but the truth is quite bitter: Oklahoma's public schools are being set up to fail.
Just ask Michael D. Johnson.
Johnson, 41, has been a Tulsa Public Schools principal for six years, including stints at Booker T. Washington High School and the new Monroe Demonstration School.
He's also served on the boards of the Tulsa YMCA, the Greenwood Cultural Center and Metropolitan Baptist Church.
His wife Heather is similarly engaged in the community, serving on the Tulsa Ballet Board and as manager of the Metro Tulsa Chamber of Commerce's Education and Workforce program.
In short, the Johnsons are just the kind of young leaders cities -- and school districts covet. After all, lawmakers bleat incessantly about keeping the best and brightest in our schools.
Sadly, the Johnsons are leaving Tulsa. He is the new principal at George Washington High School in Denver. Things aren't perfect in Colorado, either, but the Johnsons concluded it offers better potential outcomes for themselves and their elementary school-aged children than Tulsa and Oklahoma in 2012.
Johnson chooses his words carefully when describing the state of public education in Oklahoma as he sees it -- acknowledging "I'm a public educator so it's going to seem slightly tilted toward one end of the equation over the other."
"There's an issue with public ed. ... There's been a significant reduction in funding, but also a significant increase in the level of expectation.
"You're expecting educators to prepare individuals for a better society. So it's almost like saying we're going to go to war, but we're going to give you a slingshot and a BB gun and we want you to win this war.
"It sounds crazy. You'd never ask someone to go into that situation."
The impact of the Legislature's short-sightedness yields horror stories across Oklahoma. School districts scramble to replace top-notch teachers and administrators who accepted better opportunities out-of-state, moved into the private sector or retired rather than fight with a slingshot and BB gun.
It's not as if lawmakers haven't had opportunities to invest in public schools.
Last spring, when the House and Senate failed to reach agreement on a new round of tax cuts, state Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, offered a common sense suggestion: Take the $25 million in revenue that would have been lost to tax cuts and earmark it for education.
" ... If no agreement is going to be reached (on taxes)," he argued, "then let's put those dollars into the classroom to benefit Oklahoma's children."
The response from legislative leaders? Crickets.
Even now lawmakers could do the right thing: The state just poured $306.8 million in excess revenues into the Rainy Day Fund, increasing the balance to about $556 million.
Yes, the fund is for emergencies. Is there any greater emergency -- or investment in Oklahoma's future -- than that being experienced by public education?
"There's no more of a drought than in public education," asserts Johnson. "It's dry right now.
"If you can provide the rain for public ed, why would you not? That's the question educators here in Oklahoma and other states are asking: Why are you not funding it? Why are we continuously being asked to do more with less?"
The simple answer is this: A small but powerful elite in Oklahoma doesn't want public education to survive in its current form.
One reason is they loathe the teachers' unions. They don't like the idea that any workers -- but especially public employees -- can join forces to negotiate contracts and protect themselves from arbitrary punishment or dismissal.
Second, and even more importantly, these folks want to privatize education because they think there is money to be made. Serious money. Can you spell g-r-e-e-d?
The idea of monetizing core government functions like education and corrections for profit is loony.
In criminal justice it leads to more people behind bars for lesser offenses. It doesn't matter if society would be better served by community-based sentencing and treatment programs. Those bodies are needed, after all, to ensure a profitable enterprise.
In education, what would become most important? Not the learning, but the bottom line. Public education isn't broken -- it just needs the tools to do the job right. There's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.
And frankly, most Oklahomans like their public schools just fine.
They are the crown jewels of many communities. They open their doors to all comers -- regardless of socio-economic status, race, religion or developmental disabilities.
No one is oblivious to the need for improvement, especially educators. But it is simply unfair talk about our commitment to education and not put our money where our mouths are.
Money isn't the only answer but it is a key. And lip service doesn't pay the bills.
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