POSTED ON DECEMBER 8, 2010:
The Education of Gov. Fallin
Brad Henry dubbed himself "the Education Governor," but got failing grades. The new gov needs to lead by listening
The State Chamber recently hosted a screening in Oklahoma City of the documentary Waiting for Superman. No surprise. The film vilifies teachers unions and praises charter schools, echoing the business elite's notions -- at least in Oklahoma -- of what undermines and improves public education.
The problems and solutions, of course, are far more complex. And some, quite frankly, may be well beyond the capacity of our elected officials to resolve. Example: You can't legislative good parenting and parental involvement, long proven to be keys to academic success.
With a new governor and state superintendent taking office early next month, the state Capitol already is abuzz over the potential of a radical overhaul of common education.
Gov.-elect Mary Fallin says her "transition education team" in the next few weeks will begin exploring what can be done to "get more money into the classroom." Incoming Superintendent Janet Barresi promises a "bold agenda for reform" that begins with an audit of the state Department of Education.
There certainly are problems in Oklahoma's public schools. Too many of our high school graduates require remedial help when entering college, especially in mathematics. Just like any profession, there is mixed competency -- great teachers and administrators working alongside poor ones. Some districts offer their students a 21st Century experience, from high-tech gadgetry to state-of-the-art facilities, others seem mired in the mid-20th Century, buildings crumbling and sporadic technology.
Why, though, do we start with the assumption that public schools are failing? Too many "Jay-walking" segments on The Tonight Show, where ignorance reigns supreme? Too many surveys (often comparing apples and oranges) designed to "prove" American students are falling farther behind their peers in the industrialized world?
The truth is, we get way more bang for our buck than we deserve, especially in Oklahoma. Our early childhood education programs are widely hailed as a national model. We rank 10th nationally in curriculum standards, 12th in technology and ninth in total number of National Board Certified teachers. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Leaders and Laggards" report card last year gave Oklahoma an A in technology and B in school management, including removal of ineffective teachers, hiring and evaluation.
All this despite the fact we never put our money where our mouths are: We're in the bottom 10 in per pupil funding and teacher pay. Would we stand for it if the Sooners or Cowboys were bringing up the rear in football?
Almost every politician in my lifetime has mentioned education at or near the top of their if-elected to-do list. Show me the money? No wonder voters are so cynical about the process: promises, promises, unkept promises.
Of course, given the chance, Oklahoma voters themselves failed to deliver on education funding, overwhelmingly rejecting a proposal in November that would have forced state lawmakers to make per-pupil spending competitive with those academic powerhouses Arkansas and New Mexico.
The state's two largest newspapers, the World and the Oklahoman, were nothing more than State Chamber toadies, whining incessantly that there was no means to pay for it unless other state services were crippled. But they disingenuously avoided the obvious: $5.8 billion in tax breaks on the state books, including $2 billion -- let's call it what it is: corporate welfare -- that never created a single job.
Two billion dollars -- more than twice as much as would have been needed to fund Oklahoma's schools at the per pupil regional average. Priorities, anyone?
That battle, of course, is over. How Oklahoma's schools will be funded and what they will look like in the next generation is just beginning.
At the heart of Fallin's education agenda: operating "efficiencies" and performance pay for teachers.
"Efficiencies" is a euphemism for school consolidation, a toxic political issue, especially in a state where many rural towns not only would lose their identities, but also would probably cease to exist if it weren't for their local schools.
Fallin and Barresi both insist they oppose "forced consolidation." With long experience in public office, Fallin is adept at the political sidestep -- at a recent Capitol news conference, she repeatedly deflected questions about consolidation. In fact, she wouldn't even let her incoming cabinet secretary for education answer a reporter's question about her views on forced consolidation.
Why? Because Fallin knows full well that some of her staunchest supporters won't be content until something is done about this fact: Oklahoma, a state of only 3.7 million residents and 77 counties, has 527 public school districts and 520 full-time-equivalent school superintendents earning an average $82,605 a year.
"Consolidation" may be a sweet word to the silk-stocking power brokers in Tulsa and Oklahoma City -- anxious to neuter an education establishment that they regard as all-too-often pro-Democratic and anti-Republican -- but it's a vulgarity in rural areas, many of which are now represented by GOP lawmakers who no doubt will invoke a traditional Republican mantra: "local control."
No doubt performance (or merit) pay for teachers will move front and center in the session that begins in February. Of course, we already offer a merit pay of sorts -- a $5,000 stipend for teachers who achieve the rigorous National Board Certification.
If GOP legislative leaders, Gov.-elect Fallin and Superintendent-to-be Barresi work seriously with teachers unions, perhaps a reasonable merit pay plan can be achieved. It's more likely pigs will fly. Not because teachers unions aren't willing to have a serious discussion about it (it's happening across the country), but because the State Chamber, the state's corporate elite and Republican power-brokers are above-all about breaking the unions and further shoving Democrats to the margins.
Pay close attention. Education is the next big battleground in Oklahoma politics.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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