NORMAN — Young students do connect-the-dot worksheets to learn numbers. Students draw lines from dot to dot to reveal a picture. When they mess up, there is no picture or it’s distorted.
Each year, hundreds of bills and tax-related initiatives are approved that, viewed independently, may not seem to have a significant impact. Yet by not connecting the dots of various actions, the picture of education becomes disturbingly distorted.
· Dot 1: Since 2008, Oklahoma schools have been cut more than $220 million and fixed costs for items like fuel, utilities and insurance have increased. Our economy has performed better than most states, but school funding cuts are the nation’s third highest.
· Dot 2: Enrollment has climbed by nearly 35,000 students. The percentage of students qualifying for additional services under state and federal law also has increased.
· Dot 3: Less funding and more students have led to larger class sizes. Retaining teachers for crucial shortage areas has become more difficult.
· Dot 4: State leaders have mandated several new reforms without funding. Adoption of a new state curriculum and teacher evaluation system requires schools to spend money on teacher training, textbooks, and additional computer hardware and software to be in compliance.
· Dot 5: Oklahoma has cut its taxes at state and local levels. The most recent was State Question 766, approved in November and estimated to cost schools between $70 million to $100 million next school year (on top of $220 million already lost in cuts). Moreover, leaders want to cut income taxes again.
You may think the picture of Oklahoma education is more students failing, dropping out and lower test scores. Fortunately, that isn’t the picture. More students are graduating in Oklahoma under tougher academic requirements, and college-entrance scores have been flat. Yet the true picture is also a strained education system that lacks the capacity to absorb additional financial burden and to meaningfully move forward.
Joe Siano is superintendent of Norman Public Schools.