When I was in high school, I had a history teacher who imparted to me a fascination with America’s global legacy, and an English teacher who fully developed my infatuation with the written word. More than anything else, those two teachers were the driving force behind my graduation and subsequent jump to college. How many Oklahoma students lost the inspirational, motivational encouragement of a dedicated mentor when our public schools started last year short 1,000 teachers?[1] How many more suffered through a drop-off in educational quality when their teacher was replaced by one of the 842 emergency-certified substitutes last year?[2]

An education can be many things- an equalizer, an opportunity, a bridge between students and the world they encounter upon graduation. An education is a precious commodity, one that we as a nation have long since deemed an essential part of the American experience. Our students, our kids, our future doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, are slowly being deprived of that education by a Republican-controlled Oklahoma legislature that seems to place more importance on corporate welfare for their oil and gas benefactors than the quality of education in our state.[3] How can legislators that style themselves as members of “the part y of business” be so adamantly opposed to funding the single most important ingredient for a healthy economy?[4] Our Oklahoman Republicans waste time passing unconstitutional bills so they can call themselves “pro-life”, while they fail to protect the educational rights of children already born, already here, and already struggling.[5]

It starts, as it always does, with money. Our legislature considers a student’s education to be worth only $8,851 per year- $1,893 less than the regional average.[6] We have a budget deficit of $1.3 billion, a huge number, yet for us to even meet the regional average for education funding we would have to come up with an additional $1.3 billion. That’s what it would take for Oklahoma to simply be middle-of-the-pack. Education funding for FY2016 is less than it was in FY2008, and from 2008 to 2015, Oklahoma students each lost 23.6% of their funding.[7] That’s why, in 2016, in America, in Oklahoma, we have schools operating on four day school weeks.[8] That’s a full day of education, childcare, breakfast, lunch, all lost. 4 day school weeks mean children leave school Thursday afternoon to wait until Monday morning for their next proper meal.[9] They mean that parents already struggling to make ends meet suddenly have to find a way to watch their kids on a work day. When five days of instruction is crammed into four, how much is lost in translation, lost to the inattention that comes naturally with longer days? How much are our students losing?

856 cancelled classes and 842 emergency teaching certificates. Nearly $2,000 less for every student to get the education they both need and deserve, 4 day school weeks. Those are the causes. The effects are the 75% of eighth graders scoring below proficient in Math, the 71% of eighth graders scoring below proficient in Reading, the 39% of Oklahoma college freshmen that need remedial courses.[10][11] In Oklahoma, students who are intelligent and motivated enough to go to college still have to overcome deficiencies in their educational instruction once they get there. Of course, those are the lucky ones, because the 84.8% graduation rate that Oklahoma had in 2013 meant that over 15% of Oklahoma seniors that year failed to graduate.[12] They failed because our legislature failed them, failed each of them 1,893 times. It is very possible many of them failed because Oklahoma Republicans have made a mess of our state academic standards, changing them three times in the last six years, affecting textbooks, tests, and curriculum each time.[13][14] Why are we hamstringing our kids, our economy, and our future like this?

It is clear to any rational observer that Oklahoma’s public schools are in dire need of attention, fiscally and academically. The logical response, the proper response, would be to allocate more funding, increasing education funding until our kids, and by default our state, are no longer being placed at a competitive disadvantage. The response of Oklahoma Republicans has been to push their conservative agenda down our throats. SB 609 was authored by Senator Clark Jolley last year, in an attempt to create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a voucher system that would put 90% of a student’s per capita funding on a credit card to be used for private school tuition[15]. Never mind that school districts have fixed costs- repairs, infrastructural projects, capital expenditures- that don’t decrease when their funding does. Disregard the fact that there are a total of three private schools in the 16 Oklahoma counties where 30% or more of residents lack a high school diploma.[16] This is about school choice, about helping our kids- so say Oklahoma Republicans who fail to care about the 59% of Oklahomans who think education funding is of paramount importance, or the 65% of Oklahomans who oppose private and religious school vouchers.[17]

SB 609 died in committee, as did SB 1187, the “School District Empowerment Act” that would have exempted “empowered” schools from criminal background check requirements, state curriculum requirements, and academic content standards.[18] It’s unclear which bill would have made a worse law, but it is crystal clear that our kids dodged a bullet. They might not dodge the next one, though. Something has to be done, or it will be too late for the hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma students who are in the school bus as it goes over the fiscal cliff. How can you make Oklahoma Republicans put down the gun and take their foot off the gas? Vote for the 30+ educators who are running for state office this year.[19] Vote Democrat.

[1] “The Facts About Oklahoma Education,” last modified Spring 2016, http://www.okedcoalition.org/get-the-facts.html

[2] “Oklahoma teacher shortage: State board approves 157 more emergency certificates,” last modified September 25th, 2015, http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/education/oklahoma-teacher-shortage-state-board-approves-more-emergency-certificates/

[3] “Oklahoma tax incentives for oil and gas continue to be debated,” last modified January 20th, 2015, http://newsok.com/article/5386354

[4] “The Effects of Investing in Early Education on Economic Growth,” last modified April 2006, http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2006/04/education-dickens

[5] “Oklahoma lawmakers approve bill to revoke licenses of abortion doctors,” last modified April 29th, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-oklahoma-abortion-idUSKCN0XJ29I

[6] The Facts About Oklahoma Education”

[7] “Oklahoma continues to lead US for deepest cuts to education,” last modified October 16th, 2014, http://okpolicy.org/oklahoma-continues-lead-u-s-deepest-cuts-education

[8] “Four-day school week is a consequence of unwillingness to fund public schools,” last modified November 25th, 2015, http://okpolicy.org/four-day-school-week-consequence-unwillingness-fund-public-schools-capitol-updates/

[9] “Four-day school weeks,” last modified November 29th, 2015, http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/education/four-day-school-weeks-districts-weighing-benefits-but-hofmeister-says/

[10] Public Education in Oklahoma,” last modified July 2nd, 2015, https://ballotpedia.org/Public_education_in_Oklahoma

[11] “Diploma in Hand, Many College-Bound Students Must Backtrack,” last modified January 4th, 2016, http://oklahomawatch.org/2016/01/04/diploma-in-hand-many-college-bound-students-must-backtrack/

[12] Public Education in Oklahoma,” last modified July 2nd, 2015, https://ballotpedia.org/Public_education_in_Oklahoma

[13] “The price of Common Core repeal,” last modified August 29th, 2014, http://www.politico.com/story/2014/08/oklahoma-common-core-no-child-left-behind-waiver-110421

[14] “As Voting Deadline Nears, Battle Over Academic Standards Intensifies,” last modified March 2st, 2016, http://oklahomawatch.org/2016/03/21/as-voting-deadline-nears-battle-over-academic-standards-intensifies/

[15] “Bill Information for SB 609,” last modified March 15th, 2016, http://www.oklegislature.gov/BillInfo.aspx?Bill=sb609

[16] “List of private schools in Oklahoma,” last modified February 7th, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_private_schools_in_Oklahoma

[17] “Oklahoma Statewide Interview Schedule,” last modified March 7th, 2015, http://pos.org/documents/15114_oklahoma_interview_schedule.pdf

[18] “Bill Information for SB 1187,” last modified March 16th, 2016, http://www.oklegislature.gov/BillInfo.aspx?Bill=sb%201187

[19] Many Oklahoma educators plan to run for Legislature,” last modified April 13th, 2016, http://newsok.com/article/5491321