Education

School funding surges, but to what end?

August 12, 2019

Ray Carter

Over the last two legislative sessions, lawmakers have increased K-12 school appropriations by 20 percent, funneling $638 million more into the system, boosting teacher pay by a combined total average of more than $7,000 apiece, and devoting millions more to classroom funding.

Most of the funding increase came during the 2018 legislative session and flowed through districts during the most recent school year. But so far, lawmakers have little to show for it.

Complaints of a teacher shortage remain common, and this year’s statewide student test scores showed stagnation at best with continued decline the norm.

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education says Oklahomans have to be patient.

“It’s going to take a while to pull people back into the teacher-education programs in our four-year universities to try to get more people back into the classrooms,” said Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, “so it’s kind of like a four-year process, I think, before you’ll see a lot of real numbers.”

But the promise of improvement sometime down the road, in future years, does not appeal to those concerned about the plight of children sitting in classrooms today.

“We’ve been losing generations, and kids are dying on the vine,” said Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters, an organization that works to increase parent awareness of educational choices available in Oklahoma. “If we don’t have some sense of urgency, we’re going to continue to lose generations of kids. These kids don’t need solutions tomorrow. They need them right now.”

When lawmakers approved hundreds of millions in tax increases in 2018, they did so proclaiming the money would lure teachers to the classroom and result in better educational outcomes for children. But the results in year one of that political experiment have done little to bolster that theory.

“Kids are dying on the vine. These kids don’t need solutions tomorrow. They need them right now.” —Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters

This month, in a letter sent to school administrators, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister reported that academic achievement on state tests was lower in 2019 than it was in 2017, despite the subsequent huge increase in school spending.

A downward trend was noted for math and fifth-grade science and a “steeper downward trend in English language arts (ELA) performance from 2017 to 2019.” Multi-year tracking of some student cohort groups showed “a meaningful decrease in both ELA and math performance, with the exception of Grade 4 ELA and Grade 5 math cohort groups,” Hofmeister wrote.

Student results are ranked into four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. Students scoring proficient have demonstrated grade-level understanding of a subject, while those in the basic category are roughly one year below grade level and those in the below-basic category are roughly two years below grade level or worse.

The total share of Oklahoma children below grade level—the combination of those scoring basic or below basic—is very high.

State tests showed the percentage of Oklahoma students in grades three through eight who performed below grade level in English language arts ranged from 61 percent among third graders to 71 percent among seventh graders. The statewide share below grade level in math ranged from 57 percent to 77 percent. The share performing below grade level in science stood at 62 percent for fifth graders and 60 percent among eighth graders, the only two grades tested in that subject.

Pemberton noted most new school funding in 2018 went to teacher pay raises, but that this year’s funding increase was directed more to the classroom, saying Oklahomans “really haven’t seen the brunt of any spending in the classroom” yet.

“I think if these funds this year that we passed flow into the classroom, I think it’s going to positively impact learning,” Pemberton said.

Pemberton’s willingness to discuss the apparent disconnect between increased school funding and student outcomes contrasted with his House counterpart. Rep. Mark McBride, a Moore Republican who chairs the House Appropriation and Budget Subcommittee on Education, did not respond to requests for comment.

However, on his Facebook page, McBride recently posted a message from the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, which declared, “Your support of public education through your position as chairman of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee has not gone unnoticed.”

(The OEA statement incorrectly referred to McBride’s “congressional office.”)

While the decline in student outcomes may disappoint officials, Oklahoma’s continued struggle to attract teachers appears an even greater surprise. After approving an average raise of $6,100 in 2018, Oklahoma’s average teacher salary was regionally competitive and, after adjusting for cost-of-living differences, may have been 11th-best in the nation, according to one estimate.

Yet a survey by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association found schools started the 2018-2019 school year with nearly 500 vacant positions and more than half of superintendents reported teacher hiring was worse than in the prior year.

Since then the Department of Education has reported the supply of Oklahoma teachers has increased by 1,143. But the department also reported that schools hired more than 3,000 emergency certified teachers, an increase of 54 percent compared to the number hired before teacher pay was increased—and the hiring of hundreds more emergency teachers awaited approval.

In her letter to school administrators this month, Hofmeister wrote, “Oklahoma remains in a severe teacher shortage, even after back-to-back teacher pay increases averaging $7,300 a year and an unprecedented infusion of $75 million into the funding formula signed into law last May.”

Pemberton believes recent pay raises may serve primarily to encourage more high-school graduates to pursue teaching as a profession, but those individuals won’t enter the workforce for several years.

“When I first started as an administrator, 28 years ago, I had 12 or 15 applicants for every position,” said Pemberton, who worked as a principal at the Hilldale and Muskogee school districts. “But right before I retired in 2015, if I could find one, I was a proud man. So it’s going to take time for things to come back. You’re not going to raise teacher salaries and all of a sudden, boom, there’s 10,000 new people in the race, because they have to go through their four-year programs, their teacher education programs, and get back in the pipeline. So that pipeline’s going to take a little time to build up.”

But one state report indicates Oklahoma’s teacher supply is already larger than the supply in most states, measured as a share of the college-graduate population. The 2018 annual report of the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, the most recent available, shows that 15.6 percent of Oklahoma college graduates between ages 25 and 64 had their first degree in education, based on the results of 2017 American Community Survey.

That was a higher share than in all bordering states, particularly Colorado and Texas, where the percentage of college-degree holders who majored in education was just 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Nationwide, only four states had a larger share of the college-graduate population who majored in education. Overall, the report found there are 80,841 adults in Oklahoma with college degrees in education.

One national expert cautions there is no guarantee that spending alone will generate significant improvement in student outcomes.

“I don’t know of any research that says there’s a magic number that if you spent $15,000 on every student, that then amazing things would happen,” said Sarah Clark McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, “just like we don’t see that there’s any research that shows that if you paid teachers $10,000 (more) they’d be better teachers.”

McKenzie said school funding can create problems if a state allows large funding discrepancies between districts, but noted Oklahoma’s school-funding formula provides more state funding to poor schools than rich ones.

“There’s not a huge gap between your more affluent and your less affluent schools,” McKenzie said. “That’s really where the problem can come in is when you’re not allocating resources equally to schools and districts, but you are.”

McKenzie, a former elementary school teacher whose focus includes student testing/assessments, said one thing policymakers can do to improve outcomes is to ensure that quality teachers are in the classroom, but she said that requires “using assessments to see if kids are learning what they need to learn” as part of teacher evaluation.

In the meantime, many families in Oklahoma are sending their children to schools where grade-level mastery of a subject is almost a statistical anomaly. In Oklahoma County, there were at least 18 schools where 80 percent of third graders, or more, were below grade level in English subjects, with 97 percent of students at one school performing below grade level.

And in at least 19 schools in Oklahoma County, more than 60 percent of third graders were at least two-grades behind in English subjects. That means, if those children attended kindergarten through third grade, they received just two years of learning in four years of classroom attendance.

While Ruiz supports efforts to improve those schools, he argues families in such schools deserve the chance to place their children in better learning environments elsewhere, rather than being told to wait another four-plus years. Choice Matters supports everything from public charter schools to programs that allow parents to use state funding to pay private-school tuition.

“The more people try to put this off, the more people are going to start responding,” Ruiz said. “And we’ve already seen the swelling in the communities from people who are tired of waiting for something to happen and starting to organize to make something happen. We’ve seen it in Tulsa. We’re seeing it here in Oklahoma City.”

McKenzie said it “does take time” to raise academic performance. But if the goal is to improve academic outcomes, she suggested that enacting thoughtful policy changes along with spending increases has a better chance of success than spending increases alone.

“If we’re just doing the same thing with more money,” McKenzie said, “we shouldn’t expect different results.”

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