Painting an honest picture of schools

With so much attention turned to education this session, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about the positive attributes of Oklahoma public education that may not be so well known, but should be, as well as giving some not-so-positive statistics along the way.  You choose.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Education, the statewide ACT average is 20.4, while the national average is 20.8.  Locally, Tulsa County high school students can graduate with as many (maybe more) as 18 hours of transferable college credits from Tulsa Community College, with low or zero cost and/or debt, while TCC students can graduate with up to 64 hours of transferable credits with low or zero cost/debt.

Statewide, Oklahoma has a 17-to-1 student teacher ratio. Tulsa Public Schools has a 15-1 student teacher ratio.  Jenks Public School District was recently rated the best district in Oklahoma, and five of the top 15 are in Tulsa County. Union Public Schools was just recognized by the New York Times for their very good work.

In FY2017, total revenue dedicated to Common Ed in Oklahoma was $8,322,048,009 or about $12,000 per student.   Furthermore, the teachers’ retirement pension fund is more fully funded than in its entire history, currently funded at 62 percent, which is up from 47 percent just a few years ago.

In contrast, the Daily Oklahoman recently ran an article that indicated one group that evaluated Oklahoma school funding had used a “methodology in which even increased funding could still be declared a ‘cut’ at times.”  Evaluations like that make it very difficult to compare apples-to-apples.

The Oklahoma Secondary School Board Association shows Oklahoma is right at $8,000 and seventh in the region in terms of dollars allocated per student, which is approximately $600 behind sixth-ranked Texas.

For teacher salaries, in FY 2015 Oklahoma was seventh in the region (not necessarily salary plus benefits; just salary) at $45,317, which is $1,100 behind sixth-ranked New Mexico.

For Tulsa Public Schools, the General Fund budget has increased by 4 percent (from FY2013 to FY2017) when at the same time student enrollment has decreased 4 percent.  There are 37 school districts “off the formula” – meaning they receive no state aid due to their ad valorem revenue being at a level where no state aid qualifies.  Tulsa County remains a ‘donor’ county because some counties need help in being equitable in the formula.  It’s interesting to note there are nine counties (Haskell, Bryan, Choctaw, Johnston, Latimer, McCurtain, Murray, Okfuskee and Seminole) that for decades have not met their constitutional obligation to increase their respective ad valorem rates.  Donor counties make up the difference.

According to the published budgets of area schools, school districts in the Tulsa area operate under the Oklahoma state average of $7,995 per student, with the most efficient being Owasso Public Schools at $5,344 and the least being TPS at $7,591.

In research done by Dr. Ben Scafidi, Ph. D., Professor of Economics, Kennesaw State University, there are also some interesting numbers for the years spanning 1993-2014:

  • In Tulsa, enrollment decreased by 3 percent and the number of teachers decreased by 4 percent, but non-teaching staff increased by 147 percent.
  • In Tulsa Union, enrollment increased by 49 percent and the number of teachers increased by 50 percent, while non-teaching staff increased by 150 percent.
  • In Jenks, enrollment increased by 38 percent and the number of teachers increased by 42 percent, but non-teaching staff increased by 76 percent.

Those are just a few of the facts and statistics I’ve learned.  Perhaps you can better understand the dilemma of “how much is needed” for public schools in a year where the budget is stretched.  It is even acerbated to a fuller extent when upon asking three separate public school superintendents, “How much is needed?”  The same answer was given: “I don’t know.”

But, the number-one frustration has been our allowance of having others publically evaluate our schools and educational opportunities rather than us telling our own story. Personally, allow me two stories. First, of our three children, two graduated from an Oklahoma public school (the other from a public school in another state).  The two in Oklahoma were well prepared and competed at the highest level at two separate, yet both excellent, institutions of higher education.  Second, for many years of my professional career, there was the opportunity to visit with students on their campuses all over the nation.

In my own evaluation of Tulsa Public Schools as an urban district – versus urban schools in Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Birmingham, and Atlanta –   I would pick TPS every time over all the urban schools I visited.  With respect to our suburban schools, they match or surpass the suburban schools of the very same cities.  Our challenge is to “sell’ what we have – and do so publicly. We should work to improve our weaknesses – and do so amongst ourselves – not by parading them publically.  Yes, there are improvements to be made, but we have very good options for public education right now.  Let’s make sure we “paint” our own picture and not allow others to do it for us.

I always welcome your questions and concerns.   Please feel free to contact me at the state Capitol by calling 405-521-5620 or by email at rader@oksenate.gov.