Ray Carter | August 17, 2022

Public-school failures have ripple effects in workforce

Ray Carter

The failure of Oklahoma’s public-school system to produce enough students proficient in core academic subjects is creating significant workforce challenges that compound over time and deter new job creation, based on data presented to lawmakers during a recent hearing.

Ben Lepak, executive director of the State Chamber Research Foundation, told members of a Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding working group that Oklahoma has thousands more jobs available than it has jobseekers, particularly in areas requiring educational attainment.

“We lack people,” Lepak said.

In 2021, he said there were roughly 36,000 more job postings than people searching for work in Oklahoma.

“The areas where we have challenges and gaps in this workforce are the areas that are fastest-growing in the demand for those occupations,” Lepak said. “And so this is not just a 2021 problem or a 2022 problem. This is a problem that we’re going to continue to face as a state, and in fact it’s going to get worse if we don’t address it.”

Of the 36,000 excess postings, 21,000 were for jobs that required a bachelor’s degree and another 1,000 required an associate’s degree.

Oklahoma ranked 45th among the 50 states in the percentage of the working-age population with a four-year bachelor’s degree in 2022 with about 26 percent of Oklahoma workers holding a degree.

But in rankings based on the share of the population with a degree in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field, Oklahoma’s position plummeted even further.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Lepak said. “We rank 50th of 50 states.”

Oklahoma’s poor ranking for college-degree attainment has its roots in subpar outcomes from its K-12 public-school system.

According to the results of state testing for the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent for which results are currently available, just 24 percent of Oklahoma 11th grade students were proficient or better in science, while just 21 percent were proficient in math.

Those low proficiency rates were little different than the results produced in the pre-COVID 2018-2019 school year when 24 percent of Oklahoma 11th grade students were proficient or better in science and 23 percent in math.

While funding is often blamed for poor outcomes in public schools, state data show that even in many public schools with significant per-pupil funding—with some schools receiving between $15,000 and $45,000 per pupil—academic outcomes often remain subpar.

Chad Warmington, president & chief executive officer of the State Chamber, said workforce issues are a huge concern for Oklahoma business leaders.

When the Chamber recently polled Oklahoma business leaders and asked them to name the “number one issue that’s the threat to your business in Oklahoma or the threat to you being able to grow in Oklahoma,” Warmington said one answer dominated.

“It was workforce,” Warmington said. “(There) wasn’t even a close second.”

He said more than 60 percent of business leaders cited workforce as the number-one issue facing their business in Oklahoma.

One lawmaker said those findings are not shocking based on information gleaned from Oklahoma’s prior, unsuccessful efforts to lure major new business investment to the state.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback on why we lose these bids,” said state Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “I mean, I sat in a room with Saab. They told us: ‘It’s people.’ It was that simple. ‘You do not have the people to produce a high-level, six-gen trainer aircraft for the Air Force.”

In 2019, the Saab Group chose to open an aircraft-manufacturing plant in Indiana rather than Oklahoma.

Indiana consistently outranks Oklahoma on academic outcomes—and experts have found robust school-choice policies have played a notable role in generating those outcomes.

The Center for Education Reform’s Parent Power! Index ranks Indiana third-best in the country, noting that up to 90 percent of students in that state are now eligible for at least one of Indiana’s multiple school-choice options.

The index states that 47 percent of fourth-grade students in Indiana are proficient in math and 37 percent of eighth graders. The average SAT score in Indiana was 1095 out of a possible 1600, and the average ACT score was 23.1 out of a possible 36.

In contrast, the index found a substantially smaller share of students in Oklahoma were proficient in math with just 35 percent of fourth graders testing proficient compared to Indiana’s 47 percent. Among eighth graders, just 26 percent of Oklahoma students were proficient in math, compared to 37 percent in Indiana.

Oklahoma’s average SAT score of 1048 was also significantly lower than Indiana’s average score, and so was Oklahoma’s average ACT score of 19.7.

A March 2021 report released by the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas—“Education Freedom and Student Achievement: Is More School Choice Associated with Higher State-Level Performance on the NAEP?”— ranked states based on school-choice opportunity and compared those rankings with student scores on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests, often called “The Nation’s Report Card.”

The report ranked Indiana second-best among the 50 states on its Education Freedom Index, while Oklahoma ranked far behind at 22nd. The report also ranked Indiana fourth-best for private-school choice, while Oklahoma ranked 21st.

The University of Arkansas researchers found that “higher levels of education freedom are significantly associated with higher NAEP achievement levels and higher NAEP achievement gains in all our statistical models.”

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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