Oklahoma’s Education Disaster

Teachers pack the state Capitol rotunda to capacity on the second day of a teacher walkout in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, April 3, 2018. (Nick Oxford/Reuters)
A deeply red state has refused to fund its schools at adequate levels, and conservatives there must work to change that.

Oklahoma City — In the shadow of the state capitol building on Monday morning, thousands of public-school teachers from across the state rallied after walking off the job. After months of negotiations to address a funding crisis for public education in the state, the teachers had had enough — despite the signing of H.B. 1010xx, a last-minute compromise bill that included various tax increases to fund a modest pay hike for teachers.

The statewide teachers’ strike — which continued into its second day this morning with no end in sight, and was inspired in part by the nine-day teachers’ strike last month in West Virginia — comes after decades of failure by the state government to prioritize K–12 education.

From 2008 to 2015, total state funding per student is down 15.6 percent after adjusting for inflation, while combined state and local funding is down 11.8 percent measured the same way, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. With a growing K–12 student population, Oklahoma school districts have been forced to make deep cuts in support staff, course offerings, and other supplementary services. Schools in 91 mainly rural school districts have even moved to a four-day school week, forcing families to scramble to plan for child care on Fridays.

Starting salaries for first-year teachers in Oklahoma are among the lowest in the nation. Across the Red River in Texas, or across the border in Arkansas and Kansas, first-year teachers make thousands more. This disparity provides a very rational incentive for Okie teachers to decamp for the prosperous, growing suburban school districts near Dallas, Houston, and Kansas City. Indeed, the state’s two major public colleges, the University of Oklahoma in Norman and Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, have educated thousands of teachers in recent years — only to see them seek employment in Texas. Moreover, the critical shortage of certified teachers has forced schools to turn elsewhere: This year, the state employed more than 1,900 emergency-certified teachers to make up for the shortfall. Five years ago, there were fewer than 500 emergency-certified teachers employed in Oklahoma schools.

But Kirt Hartzler, the superintendent of Union Public Schools in Tulsa, a suburban district and one of the state’s largest (and of which I am a graduate), told the Tulsa World that the public’s perception of the problem as one primarily involving low teacher pay is misinformed. “I don’t think [Oklahomans] understand the two-front battle we’re fighting,” Hartzler said. “We’re fighting for teacher pay in order to attract and retain teachers because we’re losing them in record numbers. The other part of that battle is the operational side of things. That gets into class sizes. How do we lower class sizes and make sure we can sustain programs we want to offer kids?”

Hartzler is right. The primary, and most visible, result of the decade of cuts has been growing class sizes, as school districts spread more and more students among fewer and fewer teachers. Several teachers rallying on the capitol grounds told me that it’s not uncommon for public-school teachers to handle classes of 35 or 40 students, an impossible situation if the goal is individualized instruction tailored to students’ needs.

The class-size issue is visceral, and one of the biggest windows into the state’s decades-long education-policy failure.

“When I began teaching, most classes had 18 to 21 kids in them.” Trina Doersom, a middle-school math teacher from Beggs, told me in a conversation on the capitol grounds. “Now, you’ll see 36 kids in a class. I’ve seen kids have to sit on the floor.”

The class-size issue is visceral, and one of the biggest windows into the state’s decades-long education-policy failure. When classes grow to more than 30 or 35 kids, one teacher told me, the job inevitably becomes less about teaching the material and more about keeping discipline in an overcrowded, rowdy classroom. To fill the gaps, many teachers are no longer allotted a planning period. In 1990, a teacher walkout spurred the Oklahoma legislature to pass H.B. 1017, which put into law limits on class sizes. But those limits have been scratched in the years since, owing to the funding situation (the limits have now been waived for most schools), and class sizes have crept back up to unmanageable levels.

An Absence of Leadership
No reasonable examination of the facts can avoid laying blame at the feet of Republican governor Mary Fallin. Once a rising conservative star, Fallin served three terms as Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor and two terms in the U.S. House before she was elected to the governorship in the GOP-wave year of 2010, accompanied by big Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature. The ensuing years, however, have seen a constant stream of budget and funding missteps, especially regarding education.

“Just like Oklahoma families, we are only able to do what our budget allows,” Fallin said in a written statement. “Significant revenue-raising measures were approved to make this pay raise and additional school funding possible. We must be responsible not to neglect other areas of need in the state such as corrections and health and human services as we continue to consider additional education funding measures.”

Indicative of Fallin’s lack of strong leadership was the aforementioned last-minute compromise on teacher pay, which hiked the minimum salary for a first-year teacher to $36,601 while raising taxes on cigarettes, oil and gas production, gasoline and diesel fuel, and hotel rooms. Just days later, the hotel-room tax increase was repealed on the back of opposition from the state’s tourism industry. So Fallin has given teachers a (modest) pay raise — but may leave the next governor the job of figuring out how to pay for it.

“Our problem is leadership,” Tom Coburn, a former U.S. senator, tells me in an interview. “The problem is that the legislature hasn’t done its job. We need to pay teachers more — everybody agrees with that — but how they’ve gone about it is the wrong way.”

Oklahoma, Coburn says, should not first look to tax increases to fund education when the state government has the money already. “We can find $500 to 700 million if we wanted to — that’s No. 1,” he says. “No. 2 is the administration costs in Oklahoma education. We have more than 500 different school districts. We have more school districts than Texas. So, we have this tremendous inefficiency in administrative costs . . . and nobody’s fixing that. There’s no reform as we raise taxes.”

“I’m not against raising some taxes if we need to,” Coburn emphasized. “But not looking at how you’re spending your money now cheats the Oklahoma taxpayer.”

A solidly red state, Oklahoma’s politics do not necessarily correspond to Washington’s. The divide here is less liberal vs. conservative and more rural vs. urban/suburban. The education-funding issue is contentious because current law strictly limits local districts from separately raising property taxes to pay for operational costs, including higher teacher salaries, and many support services. Because of the strict limits on property taxes, local school districts are more dependent on state funding than in most other states.

The state funding formula is intended to prevent smaller, rural districts from being left behind. According to TulsaKids Magazine’s Claire Combs, “before state aid is distributed, local sources of revenue such as property taxes are subtracted from a district’s allocation.”

In effect, communities that invest more in their schools at a local level see their state aid proportionally decreased. The Oklahoma Policy Institute found that 35 school districts in Oklahoma do not receive any foundation or salary incentive state aid due to this equalization process. . . . The equalization balancing could actually hold back districts that are looking for ways to increase funds.

The fear of having their towns left behind has caused many rural voters to oppose changes to the status quo. Meanwhile, teachers in the states’ suburban districts confidently tell me that, if given the option, residents would vote through tax increases to adequately fund their local schools.

Many suburban school districts have glittering facilities but exploding class sizes and out-of-date textbooks.

Local school boards do have the power to ask residents to vote to issue bonds — but there are strict rules about how the money can be spent. Money is raised and spent on fixed-assets purchases (such as buildings), but operational funds (such as money to hire teachers) can be supplemented only indirectly. Thus, many suburban school districts near Tulsa and Oklahoma City have glittering facilities, state-of-the-art high-school football stadiums, and equipment and uniforms for the marching band — but exploding class sizes and out-of-date textbooks. Unfortunately, in Oklahoma, effective subsidiarity isn’t on the table.

Many conservatives might ask whether an aggressive school-choice agenda might be the answer, rather than higher funding for public schools. But Fallin’s administration has failed in this area as well. She has not managed to push through any major education reforms despite having strong Republican majorities throughout her tenure. Indeed, Fallin’s eight-year legacy, such as it is, will consist mostly of tinkering around the edges of the state income-tax rate. A pro-growth, designed-from-the-ground-up tax regime was never even considered.

A New Approach
Government in Oklahoma needs deep reform. If the states are meant to be, in our federal system, sovereign “laboratories of democracy,” then Oklahoma’s leaders should realize that their current experiment is failing. Texas is just a three-hour drive from metro Oklahoma City, and, despite the differences in scale, there are many cultural and economic similarities between the two states. Houston has oil and gas, but, then, so do Oklahoma City and Lawton and Muskogee. And Dallas is not a port city, while Tulsa has access to Mississippi River shipping lanes via the Arkansas River. What Texas has that Oklahoma doesn’t is better statewide polices, more-efficient government, and a better tax regime to fund necessary infrastructure and educational priorities, and, therefore, growing prosperity.

“We have enough money — more than enough money,” Coburn tells me, “to give every teacher a $7,000-per-year raise,” if the state government will simply do its job, cut waste, and spend taxpayers’ money efficiently.

Conservatives in Oklahoma should push to emulate the best practices of red states that have had success: Florida’s sales-tax regime and school-choice policies and Texas’s business-friendly culture. But it should also pursue deeper change. The state’s Progressive-era constitution dates to 1907, and it is cumbersome, complicated, arbitrary, and useless. Indeed, for many decades, Oklahoma’s constitution was the longest governing document of any state in the Union, with more than 30 separate articles. And that already complicated document has been amended more than 150 times through ballot measures. Instead of the status quo, conservatives should embrace the hard but necessary project of rewriting the state constitution in its entirety, with a focus on giving local communities control of their own destinies and resources.

“We need a constitutional convention to reform our constitution to make us a viable, thriving state,” Coburn says. The state needs a more powerful constitutional role for the governor’s office, he adds, and “transparency about how we spend our money.”

“How about the citizens of Oklahoma being able to see [how state funds are spent]?” Coburn asks. Indeed, Fallin vetoed a bill that would have published how the state spends its money. “How dare her,” Coburn says. “We do that on the federal level — you can go to and find out everything. But in the state, we can’t know how we spend our money.”

How about a unicameral legislature (like Nebraska’s) that meets only every other year (like Texas’s) with forward-thinking school-choice programs (like Florida’s)?

Coburn, who says he’s working to organize a state constitutional convention, has proposed a bipartisan, bicameral permanent oversight committee with subpoena power, to force state government to be more efficient and cut waste. “If you’re not going to have oversight over how the money is spent,” Coburn laments, “then it’s not going to get spent in the best way.”

Oklahomans deserve innovative leadership with innovative ideas: How about a unicameral legislature (like Nebraska’s) that meets only every other year (like Texas’s) with forward-thinking school-choice programs (like Florida’s)? Four-day school weeks, classrooms with 40 kids, and students forced to sit on the floor is no one’s idea of a successful educational environment.

Conscientious Okies should get to work.

Correction: This article originally stated that Governor Fallin was not at the state capitol on Monday, April 2. In fact, she was at the capitol. I regret the error.


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