April 8, 2021

John Thompson: Oklahoma Takes The Economic Guardrails Off

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John Thompson has been tracking Oklahoma shenanigans. This time, he’s watching the governor play games with poverty statistics while the legislature takes steps to further privatize the education system.

Across the nation, too many corporate school reformers are using alt facts when attacking traditional public schools as they struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, a particularly disgusting one-two punch was thrown at high-poverty Oklahoma public schools. This assault is especially deserving of fact checking. Fortunately, the Network for Public Education blog also posted a link to the Rutgers University Shanker Institute’s School Finance Indicators Database project, and its new dataset, the District Cost Database, which updates the evidence of what it would actually take to bring every district’s test scores up to the national average.

As explained by Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer, the Republican-controlled legislature and the governor rammed through a change in the school funding formula, which had cushioned districts with declining enrollments from the need to make rushed budgetary cuts. The value of such a buffer, I would add, is most clear during a crisis such as the pandemic.

But, Gov. Stitt proclaimed the new funding formula and a student transfer bill as “the most transformative education reform legislation in Oklahoma history.”

In fact, as State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister responded, “This bill removes financial safeguards meant to protect all students from the abrupt changes in the local economy. Kids will lose when schools are forced to make sudden cuts in essential services and opportunities which provide access to a well-rounded education.” It primarily will damage poor rural districts, the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), and the Oklahoma City Public School System (OKCPS).  If it had been in effect this year, the law would have cost the OKCPS about $7 million.

Why would privatizers like Stitt want to kick high-challenge schools while they are down? Why don’t they ask what it would take to build a system where student performance at least reached the nation’s average level? If these corporate reformers were really interested in “transformative” change, they would study the Rutgers database which estimates (using 2018 data) what it would cost to bring the TPS and OKCPS test scores to the national average.

The TPS’s and OKCPS’ current outcomes are about .630 and .633 standard deviations below the national average.  Tulsa’s poverty rate (as opposed to the low-income rate measured by Free and Reduced Lunch rates) is 26.1%. Nearly 1/5th of its students are English Language Learners (ELL). So, it is estimated that Tulsa would need an additional $6,388 per student to catch up.

One third of OKCPS students are in poverty, and 1/3rd are ELL students. It would take an estimated $11,152 per student to bring the district to the national average.

Why is student performance so low, and why would it cost so much to significantly improve Oklahoma City schools?

The first answer is the lack of economic opportunity for poor youth in Oklahoma County. The New York Times’ databaseestimates that only 17 percent of the nation’s counties offer less economic mobility for poor children. The annual income for poor kids is likely to be $1,470 lower in Oklahoma County; boys are likely to earn $1,850 less.

Second, the Journal of the American Medical Association’s “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001–2014” found that,Adjusting for race and ethnicity, life expectancy for individuals with low incomes is lowest in Nevada, Indiana, and Oklahoma.” It recommended “targeted efforts to improve health among low-income populations in cities, such as Las Vegas, Nevada, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.”

Moreover, in the predominantly African-American northeast sideof the OKCPS, there are zip codes where infant mortality is up to four times greater than the U.S. rate, and the hypertension mortality rate is five and a-half times greater. The northeast has zip codes where the suicide rate is more than double the rest of Oklahoma and the murder rate is up to 17 times greater than the U.S. rate. There is a zip code where the gun mortality rate is nearly 37 times the national rate.

Not surprisingly, in a state that has long been tied for first in multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), schools in these neighborhoods with concentrations of extreme poverty also have large percentages of students who have survived multiple traumas. It has been estimated that up to 45.5 percent of at-risk Oklahomans may be struggling with the stress created by three or more ACEs, so it is not surprising that 1/4th of OKCPS students report moderate need and 1/4th report high need for help with psychological stress.

The week’s second assault on urban schools is likely to produce little more than psychological stress, but it is also likely to become a case study in making up ridiculous legal arguments to fuel scorched earth politics.

As was previously explained, four State Department of Education appointees of Gov. Kevin Stitt voted to settle a lawsuit by the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association which said that existing state laws were being “misinterpreted.” In a 4 to 3 executive session vote, the SDE Board shocked the state by passing  a “Resolution” on “the interpretation and implementation of laws regarding funding of charter schools” so charters will now receive funding from the “General Fund, the Building Fund, [and] all other Local Revenue” in addition to the state funding they have received.

In fact, as State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister explained, “this action knowingly violated Oklahoma statute and the Oklahoma Constitution.” (emphasis mine.)” She added that this action could have a “seismic effect” on schools, and “the ramifications on schoolchildren are yet to be fully understood.” The Stitt appointees ignored the SDE’s legal advice; its attorney explains that the law:

Expressly requires a levy of taxes; a vote of the people within a defined taxing unit. … Charter schools have neither an ability to levy taxes nor a defined taxable unit. It is erroneous to suggest that charter schools can do something indirectly that they cannot directly do (i.e., levy taxes).  

The OKCPS has already begun its legal response with a resolution arguing that “the Oklahoma Constitution provides that such levies are only for the benefit of ‘school districts’ as opposed to charter schools.” It challenges the “overreaching, illegal, and unconstitutional nature” of the settlement.

When the charter funding suit was first filed in 2017, it was estimated that it would cost the TPS and the OKCPS between $1 million and $1.5 million each, per year. Now that the pandemic spurred growth of Epic for-profit virtual charter schools to nearly 60,000 students, a ruling in favor of charters could cost tens of millions of dollars.

To be honest, I suspect that charters are no more likely to win this fight than they are to figure out a way to retain many high-poverty (as opposed to low-income) students, and provide them with a holistic, meaningful education.  Although they have largely failed to produce actual improvements in schools, corporate reformers have had great success in promoting false narratives. For instance, when the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation concluded that Epic enrolled “ghost students,” who received “little or no instruction from Epic teachers,” in order to improperly receive $800 to $1000 dollars per student, charter advocates made up the alt fact that it was the state’s formula that funded “ghost students.”

I worry that the biggest cost of these recurring propaganda campaigns will not be the loss of millions of dollars of funding; it will be the distractions they will cause at a time when we need to come together, discuss evidence-based ways of investing federal recovery money, and create holistic and resilient systems for serving the whole child.

It is easy for me to remind school systems that trying to anticipate and head off the next rounds of privatization spin is probably impossible. It is harder for schools, however, to dare to commit to the team effort required to patiently provide the expensive, socio-emotional foundation which is necessary for holistic teaching and learning in highest-challenge schools when “reformers” are always devising new assault tactics. We know that fake news headlines will continue to be generated by charter organizations. But since we can’t anticipate what their next spin cycle will produce, schools and community partners should focus on rebuilding systems for the 21st century.

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