Ray Carter | April 22, 2021

Education groups attack lawmakers, school choice

Ray Carter

Following passage of some of the largest tax increases in Oklahoma history in 2018, teachers have received average pay raises of more than $7,000 apiece and state appropriations for education are now $545 million more than in 2018 with total school funding, including cash forward reserves, up by $1.36 billion.

But a handful of education-related groups say schools are nonetheless “under attack,” claiming legislators are working “to harm our public schools” and have left teachers unable to “support their families.”

“The 2021 legislative session has delivered an onslaught of legislation aimed to harm our public schools and our teachers,” said Erika Wright, a parent in the Noble Public Schools district who leads the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition Facebook group.

That and similar charges were lobbed at a press conference conducted by officials with Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC), Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition Facebook group, and Oklahoma Edvocates. During the event, speakers decried legislation that ties school funding more closely to actual student enrollment, efforts to provide equitable funding to both traditional public schools and public charter schools, and school-choice programs in general.

Speakers argued Oklahoma schools simply need more funding.

But the PLAC press conference was quickly countered by other education activists primarily associated with Parent Voice Oklahoma, which works to elevate the role of parents in school decisions across the state. The Parent Voice parents—who were notably more racially and economically diverse than the all-white participants at the PLAC press conference—said funding increases alone don’t solve all problems and spending increases don’t always benefit students.

“We need to change the narrative or the belief that somehow our academic achievement here in Oklahoma is tied to funding,” said Robert Ruiz, executive director of Choice Matters. “We absolutely have many examples of where schools are actually being funded at a much lower rate, especially when we talk about charter schools, that are producing much, much better results.”

Ruiz noted the average tuition in Oklahoma’s private schools is about $7,000, which is less than typical per-pupil spending in many traditional public schools.

“And then we have the other examples, where a school like Douglass High School, who is receiving $14,555 per student, is an F school,” Ruiz said. “That’s enough to pay for the most expensive, elite education here in Oklahoma. And so every one of those students should be receiving an immaculate education, but yet the academic performance shows that they’re an F school. There’s a huge opportunity gap there for those students and it’s not coming from funding.”

Participants in the PLAC press conference painted a picture of public-school poverty and despair despite the massive influx of funding.

Lucia Frohling, member of the Deer Creek PLAC and president of the local parent-teacher association, said that public schools are “under attack,” saying that “state budget cuts and moving money out of the public school system has caused our schools to have no choice but to increase class sizes and not fill positions as teachers retire or leave.”

“The real status quo about public education is its chronic underfunding, as well as inadequate and inequitable funding by our state Legislature,” Frohling said.

Deer Creek’s per-pupil funding was nearly $14,000 per student in 2019.

Frohling said teachers are leaving the education profession “because they can’t afford to support their families.”

According to the National Education Association, the average teacher salary in Oklahoma in the 2018-2019 school year was $54,664.

Erika Wright, a parent in the Noble Public Schools district who leads the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition Facebook group, said a “damaging culture” is “developing in our state” that “has been purposely designed to demoralize our educators and to intimidate our legislators.”

Wright decried Oklahoma voters’ decision to oust some incumbents her group favored in races where independent-expenditure organizations were also involved.

“Many of your strongest allies in the Legislature, the majority of which were Republicans, are no longer there to stand up for your kids,” Wright said. “And the remaining public-education champions at the Capitol, well they’re being backed into a political corner that doesn’t align with the best interests of your children. They’re scared. They don’t want to meet the same fate as their peers who got ousted in the last election.”

Officials at the press conference attacked school-choice policies that allow families options beyond a single local district.

“The governor wants Oklahoma families to imagine themselves in an education marketplace, shopping for schools,” said J.J. Burnam, a parent from the Tulsa Public Schools district. “This is the idea where schools compete for the taxpayer dollars that the Legislature allocates for public education and parents get to pick the school they want. But we all know it won’t really work that way. Parents are being sold school choice, but it will actually be schools’ choice. It will be the schools doing the shopping for the most desirable students, choosing the typical learners, choosing the students with means, choosing the students with reliable transportation. And don’t expect them to serve all communities either. Driven by competition and profit, they’ll choose to serve only those communities where there’s a market.”

But parents of children who have benefited from school choice quickly pushed back against that narrative.

“They think that these kids going to charter or private schools, as they call it, come from a wealthy family,” said Laura Gonzalez, whose children attend Dove Science Academy, a public charter school in Oklahoma City. “Well, it’s not true. We’re not wealthy. We live pretty much, I guess, check by check.”

She noted public charter schools are achieving better academic results with far less money than the traditional schools PLAC officials described as financially starved. A national report issued in December 2020 found that per-pupil revenue in the traditional Tulsa Public Schools district was $12,949 from all sources in the 2017-18 school year, while Tulsa’s public charter schools received just $7,686 per child.

“Charter schools are underfunded, but somehow they’re making it,” Gonzalez said. “I’d like for them to walk in charter schools’ shoes.”

Ronda Peterson, a grandmother raising a grandchild with autism, said her grandson did not benefit from the huge increase in public-school funding advanced in 2018.

“I don’t know where the funding went, but it did not reach the children in the classroom, and that’s not okay,” Peterson said. “If they can’t provide better services because of the additional funding, then what good is it?”

Because of sensory-processing challenges associated with autism, she said large groups overwhelm her child and contribute to mental stress. But Peterson said the local public school refused to accommodate her boy’s needs and kept him in classes with 30 students or more.

“It was very apparent the damage it was doing to him emotionally—very, very apparent,” she said.

Thanks to Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program, which provides scholarships to students with special needs and foster children to attend private schools, Peterson’s child is now in a private school dedicated to students with special needs that has classes of 10 to 12 students. She said he is “thriving” with a “100 percent turnaround” in his mental state.

One source of contention between the two groups was House Bill 2078. Currently, state funding for schools can be based on the highest enrollment figure from the current year or the prior two years, which allows districts with declining enrollment to continue receiving payments for departed students, a practice informally referred to as “ghost student” funding since the pupils do not exist in those districts.

House Bill 2078 reformed the funding process by allowing districts to be paid based only on current-year enrollment or the most recent school year, whichever is higher, reducing the “lookback” provision by one year.

Lucia Frohling, member of the Deer Creek PLAC and president of the local parent teacher association, said HB 2078 “will drastically cut funding to rural and urban schools.”

But supporters of HB 2078 have noted education funding remains constant with its passage. And an analysis by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs showed if funding had been based on actual current-year enrollment, a majority of schools would have received more money this year.

Derek Lariviere, a Deer Creek parent who ran for a position on the school board this year, said he supported HB 2078 because it reduced double-counting of students and therefore increased per-pupil allotments for all districts.

“If the argument is we need more money, well, you’re welcome,” Lariviere said. “Governor Stitt just gave it to you.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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