March 30, 2021

John Thompson: Public Education Under Fire In Oklahoma

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The moves against public education in Oklahoma have come thick and fast, but John Thompson is here to break down this week’s worth of assaults, from an unprecedented (and probably illegal) money grab, to public officials mocking public schools on line.

In the last week, alone, Diane Ravitch and the Network for Public Education reported on efforts to advance the corporate reform agenda in Iowa,  KentuckyTexas,  ArizonaMontana,  FloridaNew HampshireMassachusetts, and Indiana. Even as public education and America as a whole is threatened by COVID-19, privatizers are doubling down on their politics of destruction.

This is an overview, with some background information, on last week’s assaults on public schools in Oklahoma.

Just before the Oklahoma State Department of Education Board (SDE) meeting, Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer tweeted, “Pretty standard agenda but I will be listening and watching the executive session items in particular.”

However, the executive session generated 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. This blockbuster resolution prompted headlines such as, “Oklahoma Charter Schools Granted Local Tax Revenue in ‘Seismic’ Settlement.

The Oklahoma Choice Matters celebrated the tens of millions of dollars that was being inexplicably bestowed on virtual and in-person charters, “We are thrilled to see the Board of Education vote to provide these schools with more resources and support.”

Surprised educators had been taught that it is the legislature (and local governmental bodies) that appropriate funding, after following established procedures that provide at least some transparency (and/or voters’ approval.) After such a bill passed both houses, we thought, it became law after the governor signed it. Is it possible that our constitution was amended when we were struggling, distracted by the challenges of the COVID pandemic?

Nope, our laws haven’t changed. But, as was explained by the Tulsa World’s Andrea Eger, the SDE Board voted 4-3 to settle a lawsuit by the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association which said that existing state laws were being “misinterpreted.” The four “yes” votes came from appointees of Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Eger noted that Trent Smith had recently been appointed after Stitt’s “abruptly giving the boot to former board member Kurt Bollenbach.” Bollenbach had supported masking mandates in schools and sanctions against Epic Charter Schools. And according to Eger:

Smith appeared to be reading the wording of his motion from his computer screen during the virtual meeting, saying, “My motion is to adopt a board resolution to equalize funding between all public schools and charter schools, thereby settling the lawsuit by the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association.”

The World also explained that State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister “made a point of revealing that the settlement offer had been received only one day earlier.” She opposed the resolution, “Based on legal advice, this violates Oklahoma statute, Oklahoma Constitution and the oath that I swore to uphold when I took office.”

Eger further explained that this case dated back to collaboration in 2017 between the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Oklahoma charter advocates. Back then, the resolution would have cost the Tulsa Public Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools between $1 million and $1.5 million each, per year.

Also, Education Watch’s Palmer and Whitney Bryen provided background information on the suit’s legal issues. Choice advocates argued that charter schools were supposed to receive state aid and “any other state-appropriated revenue,” and that such schools are eligible for “any other aid, grants or revenues allowed to other schools.” But “in 2006, the legislature amended the act and only left in ‘state aid revenue.’” Moreover, “the legislature has amended the act several times since then, the portion on funding has remained unchanged.”

Moreover, according to the Lawton Constitution, Oklahoma State School Boards Association Executive Director Shawn Hime further explained that the Oklahoma Charter School Act “never allowed charter schools, which do not have publicly-elected boards, to levy taxes, issue bonds or receive local property tax revenue for building funds.”

In other words, charter advocates ignored the Constitution, usurped the role of the legislature, and in a seemingly incomprehensible, invalid power grab, granted new funding to nearly 12% of the state’s students (meaning the money must be taken away from the rest of the students’ underfunded schools.) Moreover, nearly 3/4th of those charter students attend the infamous for-profit Epic Charter Schools, which mostly provides online instruction that doesn’t require the services that brick and mortar schools must pay for.

This assault on public education is just the latest attempt by Oklahoma Republicans and school choice advocates to kick traditional public schools while they are down, struggling with the pandemic. Fortunately, traditional public schools almost certainly will soon make formidable legal challenges to this attack on the rule of law.

Ironically, this was the week when Epic failed to repay the $11.2 million that the state auditor found that it owed the state. Moreover the legislature has not taken action on either the “intent to terminate” determination by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board regarding Epic One-on-One’s charter contract, or its scandalous behavior that prompted the finding. For instance, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation concluded that Epic had received funding for “ghost students,” who were not properly enrolled.  However, the Tulsa World’s Randy Krehbiel reports “the Senate adopted legislation sought by one of Epic’s founders that would allow state agencies to circumvent the auditor and inspector.”

Throughout the pandemic, the Republican legislators and the governor have promoted charter and private schools, as they have attacked funding for traditional public schools. For instance, The Frontier’s Ben Felder recalls, “Stitt recently funneled tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding to private school students, a move that drew criticism from teacher’s unions and Democrats.” Moreover, claiming that the highly respected state funding formula pays traditional public schools for “ghost students,” the governor and Republican Rep. Kyle Hilbert propose a change in the formula that would have cost the Oklahoma City Public Schools about $7 million if it had been in effect this year.

And, as if public schools and their enemies didn’t have enough on their plates, the governor’s office has even used Twitter to insult schools when they received national recognition for their professionalism. After Tulsa Public Schools leaders participated on a panel at the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe Schools, Alexander Russo responded sarcastically, “What’s to like about Cleveland and Tulsa’s reopening efforts?”

Since I used to contribute to Russo’s blog, and since I’ve become dismayed by his nonstop attacks on educators and unions for their caution in reopening in-person instruction, I wasn’t surprised by his tweet. I was dismayed, however, when Stitt’s Chief of Communications Charlie Hannema tweeted. “Surely this is a typo.” He then added sarcastically,  “Is there another Tulsa somewhere or are we talking about the one in Oklahoma that was weeks behind everyone else and is hemorrhaging students?”

Next, I suspect the governor’s office will move beyond its bragging about its contributions to the hemorrhaging that threatens urban schools. They will likely go back to their “foot dragging” with Medicaid expansion which was duly authorized by a vote of the people. The office will continue promoting its privatization of health services despite underfunded public health systems doing a surprisingly good job with vaccinations. And Stitt will likely be pushing the restoration of ½ a billion dollars of corporate tax cuts – even though they caused the financial emergency which prompted the 2018 teacher walkout.

Finally, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister deserves praise for continuing to fight for public schools. She earned the final word by making the key point about this latest assault on public education, as we wrestle with the pandemic. Hofmeister said, “I fear 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.”

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