POSTED ON AUGUST 18, 2010:
Back to the (Chalk) Board
State schools earn high marks, but let's get down to the root problem
I come to praise public education, not bury it.
Oh, sure, I had my share of lame teachers. I've seen my share of Jay Leno's painfully hilarious "Jaywalking" segments, featuring clueless boobs. And I've read my share of reports -- some pure fiction -- that highlight education's alleged failings.
I'm also quite aware that Americans are alarmed about their schools: A new Alliance for Excellent Education poll finds just over one in four give the nation's high schools a good or excellent rating, 42 percent give them a C and one in five a poor or failing grade.
But for the life of me, I've never understood how America's finest institution -- public education -- became its favorite target for public floggings.
Public schools unite communities, taking all comers, from all socioeconomic groups, all religions or lack thereof, and all abilities -- from Rhodes Scholars-in-training to the developmentally challenged.
Is it perfect? No. No more than private schools. Or charter schools. Or home schools.
But I would argue that we -- at least in Oklahoma -- get way more bang for our buck than we have a right to expect.
Oklahoma is a pitiful 49th nationally in what it spends per pupil and dead last regionally -- hence, SQ 744, the proposed constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters in November, would force the Legislature to fund schools at the regional average.
Yet, severely underfunded Oklahoma more than holds its own when compared to other states nationally.
• Education Week's highly-regarded Quality Counts research ranked Oklahoma No. 23 last year in school accountability, academic standards and teaching profession. Indeed, Quality Counts typically ranks the state in the Top 10 in teacher quality -- Oklahoma ranks ninth in the number of elite National Board Certified teachers (2,599).
• The number of students taking the ACT college entrance exam has jumped 27 percent since 1990. Further, the average ACT composite score in Oklahoma increased 0.7 percent compared to 0.5 percent nationally during the same period. In the past 10 years, Oklahoma's average SAT score grew by eight points in reading and 11 points in math, while the national average decreased by four points in reading and four points in math.
• Oklahoma ranks No. 1 in early childhood education, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. An estimated 72 percent of all Oklahoma four-year-olds are voluntarily enrolled in public Pre-K programs, bolstering their prospects for future academic success.
• Since 1992, the percentage of Oklahomans scoring proficient and above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has more than doubled for fourth graders and nearly doubled for eighth graders.
• The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Leaders and Laggards" report card last fall gave Oklahoma an A for technology and Bs for school management, data, hiring and staff evaluation and removing ineffective teachers.
All this accomplished with the 49th lowest per pupil spending and 650,000 students living in poverty, receiving free or reduced lunches. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned problems with broken families -- Oklahoma's in the top five in divorce rates. A key predictor of academic success is parental involvement. Alas, we live in an era of some of the sorriest parenting in American history -- they dump their families' problems at the public school's doorstep and expect educators to solve them.
Imagine what Oklahoma could become if we truly made education the top priority, rather than paying it lip service -- not just financially, but as parents and as communities. Imagine what a modest financial investment in education now could yield in future generations -- massive savings in criminal justice costs and incarceration.
Unfortunately, as schools open for the fall semester, the anti-public education machine is shifting into high gear. Many, including some lawmakers, won't rest until they destroy public education and replace it with church schools or home schools.
Particularly disheartening: Religious groups that once were among the fiercest defenders of the separation of church and state -- they feared a government-mandated religion -- now are all too happy to extend their palms to Uncle Sugar, hoping to score some taxpayer manna to finance their private schools.
They may not share the same goals, but these groups have a common foe -- public education -- and a common mantra: Vouchers. Charter schools. Competition. Choice.
K-12 public schools' share of the state budget in recent years has declined steadily. This spring, with state revenues in free-fall, the state common education appropriation plunged another 9 percent -- approved by the same governor and many of the same lawmakers who not only cut taxes $770 million-plus, but also cut tax rates.
Here's an idea: Let's put our money where our mouths are. Almost everyone lists education at the top or near the top of the state's priorities. Let's commit to fund education (with or without SQ 744) at the regional average for five years. Let's see if class sizes aren't smaller, enhancing prospects for academic success. Let's see if we don't keep more of our best teachers, ending the outflow to Texas and other states who pay significantly more.
If it doesn't work, try something else.
A recent New America Foundation report, comparing per pupil expenditures against NAEP scores, noted that "in some cases, high per pupil expenditures are connected to high student performance."
Examples: Massachusetts ranks No. 8 in per pupil spending, and more of its fourth and eighth grade students score proficient or above on both math and reading than any other state. New Jersey, No. 1 in per pupil spending, ranks in the top five on both the fourth and eighth grade NAEP tests.
Of course, there are exceptions: The District of Columbia is No. 3 in per pupil spending, but its students scored worst on the NAEP.
"How much a state spends per pupil," the New American Foundation suggests, "matters less than how that state spends that money on education services."
OK, then, it's time to answer some tough questions: Does Oklahoma have too many school districts (537)? Does it have too many highly paid superintendents? Are countywide school districts worth considering?
Of course, many of the lawmakers who complain about too many districts and excessive administration costs are the very same ones who forever trumpet the sanctity of local control.
How do you reconcile these positions? If you force consolidation, aren't you taking away local control?
This much is certain: The infrastructure is in place for Oklahoma to give its children the opportunities to be the best they can be -- even the ability to stay home, rather than flee to other states for better paying jobs upon graduation.
All that's missing is the political will to make education the state's top priority.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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