It’s Right in Front of Your Nose

You may have seen the article about Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist taking time to again teach a third-grade class.  The plan was not only to get back to the classroom, but also to emphasize vacant teaching positions.  As the Tulsa World reported, the opportunity for Gist to teach likely wouldn’t have presented itself if not for the state’s teaching shortage.

The State Board of Education in late August voted to approve 574 emergency teaching certificates for 2017-2018 sending the year to date total to 1,429.  TPS has 197 emergency certified teachers for this coming school year.

This obvious solution, according to Superintendent Gist, is a statewide teacher pay raise. But wasn’t that last year’s solution too and the year before?  Actually, the Legislature never cut school funding.  Education in Oklahoma still takes more than half of the entire state budget.

Ms. Gist goes on, “You have to think while we continue to advocate for higher investments at the state level, what are the other options?  What might we do differently?  Is there a third way that we haven’t figured out, a local way?”

At the local level, we need to continue to build on our success with early childhood education.  For the last twenty years, the program has grown to be recognized across the land. Anna Johnson, Georgetown University assistant professor of psychology says, “Tulsa is a special kind of place, a magical place for early childhood.” The first Georgetown studies showed children who participated in the public Pre-K programs showed significant gains in literacy and math when entering kindergarten.

The gains Tulsa has made must not be lost and citizens must realize the George Kaiser Family Foundation may not always provide the seed money.

Another area that needs to keep going is the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for Oklahoma special needs children.

The program is named for former Governor Brad Henry’s daughter and allowed 528 students to use state funds for private schools’ tuition. Supporters of the scholarship say it’s a resource in parental choice, giving families the chance to seek school settings that work best for their children.

The program covers disabled children and now covers foster children and children in custody of the office of Juvenile Affairs.  For the 2015-2016 school year, more than $3.5 million was spent on the program.  Most public schools are not equipped to handle those that receive these scholarships.  This program needs to continue.

Back to Dr. Gist’s question as to what other options might there be – what might we be able to do differently?

One answer that is right under our nose is reforms and whose responsibility might that be?  If Oklahomans were serious about reform, two ideas come to mind.  Get rid of 20 county governments and 200 school districts.

To show how absurd Oklahoma can take education, the Tulsa World ran an article about Jared Shepherd who just knew he could be senior class president, valedictorian or homecoming king, too.  He could be the homecoming queen if that suited him since he is the only senior in Hanna High School, a community 70 miles south of Tulsa. Hanna High School has 27 students in total in grades 9-12 and one senior.  According to the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, Hanna has the smallest enrollment of any high school in Eastern Oklahoma.

The story goes on that Jared Shepherd’s mother works in the school office as does “Aunt Jean,” who married a cousin.  And the clincher, “schools are the life blood of tiny communities.”

Don’t expect Dr. Gist to suggest school consolidation.  That’s someone else’s problem, but how can Oklahoma move forward when we can’t even acknowledge the obvious, government and education costs too much.