Ray Carter | September 7, 2022

Oklahoma’s poor academic outcomes not a product of poverty

Ray Carter

Poor academic outcomes in Oklahoma’s public schools are often dismissed as a byproduct of student poverty and an associated rise in single-parent households.

But data presented to state legislators indicates that most Oklahoma students who are not proficient in core subjects do not fall into either one of those categories.

According to data presented to lawmakers during a legislative study this week, 71 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders are not proficient in reading and 74 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math.

Yet only 21 percent of Oklahoma children live in households with earnings at or below the federal poverty level, and just 35 percent live in single-parent households. Typically, there is significant overlap between household poverty and single-parent households.

Those figures suggest roughly half of fourth-grade students who are not proficient in reading come from two-parent households, and roughly seven in 10 nonproficient fourth-grade students are from households with earnings above the poverty line.

State Rep. Danny Williams, a Seminole Republican who requested the study, expressed dismay at Oklahoma’s poor academic outcomes, calling them “ludicrous.”

“I mean, that’s sinful,” Williams said, “because we’re hurting our children and there are solutions to that.”

He noted some programs have shown just 10 minutes of extra tutoring time, provided on a regular basis, can dramatically improve students’ reading skills.

“I’m appalled at the fact that we would accept that,” Williams said. “I’m angry about it, really. Because we’re letting those kids be disadvantaged.”

Gabrielle Jacobi, child-well-being policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, presented the aforementioned data points along with several others during her presentation. Jacobi said Oklahoma needs to spend more on government welfare programs and state schools to improve outcomes.

But one legislator suggested the state should focus its efforts more narrowly.

“Would you agree with me that it would seem to make sense that it would be best for us—as much as possible, reasonable—to encourage marriage and to discourage the phenomenon of single-parent homes?” asked state Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland.

“You know, I can’t say one way or another,” Jacobi responded.

Even when considering children from low-income homes, there is no reason to assume they are automatically predestined for academic failure, another presenter at the study told lawmakers.

“I did not grow up in a very affluent home, whatsoever,” said Micah Sexton, an attorney who addressed the committee about other issues. “But my parents were huge fans of education. I was able to go to Southern Methodist University, undergrad; University of Texas … law school, which is probably one of the best 20 law schools in the country—both on scholarship. Because my parents, even though they were economically lower class, they insisted on all of us getting good educations.”

Sexton said he and both his siblings finished school and took up professional careers.

“It wasn’t because we had any special advantages,” Sexton said. “It was because we got an education.”

Williams said state officials must improve academic outcomes to address the other societal ills that accrue when people leave high school unprepared for work or college.

“We should never let our kids leave the third grade, go to the fourth grade, and have that kind of a disadvantage,” Williams said. “That’s just unfair. And it’s just not right. And I think it’s sinful.”

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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