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Politics, Public Policy and

Persimmons 

BY LLOYD W. SNOW

Many of my friends across the country ask how it feels to be a public school leader in the “reddest” state in America. My answer typically is this: It’s like having a bowl full of green persimmons for breakfast each day. (Don’t try this unless you want to be puckered up!)

The battles for investing in our children have been a lifelong Oklahoma pursuit. Our pay structure for teachers and support staff is among the lowest nationwide. We have the dubious distinction of enduring the steepest decline in school funding since 2008 of anywhere in the country. In fact, we have been cut $810 per student, resulting in a 23 percent decrease in support for K-12 education of our students.

In spite of the facts, research, experience and common sense (on top of the constant ranting by my colleagues and me), the political leadership in Oklahoma has been all for creating public policies that reduce funding for public schools and promote high-stakes testing, evaluation systems, grading schools, charter schools, virtual schools, scholarships and choice (code for vouchers).

Raging Rhetoric
This agenda will sound familiar to superintendents in other states, but our legislature, with the help of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, a business advocacy group, and the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs, an ultra-conservative “think tank,” has become astute in marketing these “reforms” as efficiencies and improvements requiring little if any funding. In fact, these groups claim plenty of additional dollars would be dedicated to public schools if administrative costs were reduced and funds were spent more judiciously.

It’s unbelievable hogwash. Yet the rhetoric seems to trump reality when supported by our only statewide newspaper, The Oklahoman (known to educators for decades as “the Daily Disappointment”).

At times, our legislature and state education department simply choose to ignore or violate existing law. The most recent example is the legislature’s attempt to not fully fund health benefits for public education employees. Only under an avalanche of resolutions by local boards of education with threats of litigation did legislators recant.

The majority Republican legislature, in concert with other elected statewide officials, uses the tired political tactic of loudly proclaiming its support of public education while dismantling the funding and policy infrastructure. This charge has been led primarily by our state superintendent of public instruction, a dentist by profession who had a smidgeon of success with a couple of charter schools she founded. She has been nothing short of a disaster, and we fully expect to replace her in office during our June 24 primary election.

The state superintendent is aided effectively by a governor who has been a career politician, aligned almost exclusively with corporate interests, especially the oil and gas industries. Among the most recent blatant examples of her priorities is her obsession to reduce or eliminate income taxes and to continue tax credits for oil and gas companies for their horizontal drilling (fracking) that now amounts to more than $250 million annually in lost revenue.

Recent tax cuts and tax credits have resulted in more than $2 billion in less revenue for our state. Consequently, our kids suffer, our prisons are overcrowded, and our health care system is in crisis. In almost every national assessment for quality-of-life measures, our state falls in the worst/bottom categories — whether it is obesity, smoking, mental illness, incarceration, highway quality, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy or, sadly, our spending for public education.

Glimmer of Hope
There is hope — in this my 35th year as a superintendent and 41st year in Oklahoma education. We have begun to develop parent legislative action committees and parent advocate/action teams around the state to apply parent power to change minds or change faces among the decision makers. These groups’ monthly meetings in various communities have drawn robust attendance. Our parents are fed up with inadequate funding, the preoccupation with high-stakes testing and the loss of local control.

Parent involvement is changing the dynamics. The pendulum has begun to swing back to the center as evidenced by our success in preventing the expansion of vouchers during the current legislative session. More than 300 schools cancelled classes on March 31 to participate in the Rally for Kids at the Capitol, which drew more than 30,000. (Our district sent nine full buses and roughly 700 Sand Springs educators, parents, students and citizens.) It was a historic turnout, and hopefully it will trigger understanding by legislators that education funding can’t wait, that we have enough high-stakes testing and that local control means supporting our kids, our schools and our communities.

Lloyd Snow is superintendent of Sand Springs Independent School District 2 in Sand Springs, Okla. E-mail: lloyd.snow@sandites.org. Twitter: @snowmanis

 

 

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