Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Oklahoma Education Budget Cuts Affecting Classen School of Advanced Studies

We are facing drastic budget cuts for public education in the state of Oklahoma this year. These cuts are not caused exclusively by declining global prices for oil and gas. Tax cuts and tax credits sustained and increased by our legislators have and continue to play a major role in this crisis. When the price of oil was over $100 per barrel, Oklahoma was maintaining almost last place status in state-level education funding comparisons like K-12 teacher salaries and per-pupil financial allocations in K-12 schools. (Around 48th in our nation of 50 states in both cases.) The best article I’ve read to date summarizing our present economic morass was Alana Semuels (@AlanaSemuels) March 10, 2016 article in The Atlantic, “The Folly of State-Level Tax Cuts.” It sounded appealing to many when Ronald Reagan promoted it, and it has to many Oklahomans in recent years, but tax cuts to the wealthy and massive tax credits to corporations don’t lead to “trickle down” financial benefits for taxpayers or public school students. We’re living through the combined results of this misguided state tax policy, along with an ongoing state legislative culture which simply doesn’t value public education. It’s tragic, it’s heart wrenching, it’s depressing, and it’s frustrating.

My wife, Shelly, (@sfryer) and I attended a presentation last Wednesday night (May 4, 2016) at Classen School of Advanced Studies in Oklahoma City Public Schools (@okcps) to learn about the impact of budget cuts on our students and school. This year we have a 12th grader, 10th grader, and 6th grader all attending ClassenSAS as International Baccalaureate majors (Alex & Rachel) and a drama major (Sarah).

Oklahoma City Public Schools announced earlier this semester that 209 teacher positions would be cut for 2016-17 to meet budget shortfalls. At that time, those cuts were to provide $8 million of $30 million of needed budget cuts for OKCPS. Statewide for next year, a $1.3 billion budget shortfall is predicted.

These numbers are big and sound scary, but it get even worse when the specific impact of these cuts on YOUR OWN public school are detailed.

Dr. Ashley Davis at Classen SAS by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Dr. Ashley Davis at Classen SAS” (CC BY 2.0) by  Wesley Fryer 

Here are some of the ways we learned budget cuts and decisions by OKCPS administrators are affecting students and families at ClassenSAS for 2016-17:

  1. Our school is losing 9 teachers for next year, and has been told they will not be permitted to hire any adjunct faculty, which will affect 4 more part-time teaching positions.
  2. The loss of these faculty may mean the entire piano program (and piano major) as well as guitar program (and guitar major) may be discontinued. No current students will be turned away, but those classes and majors may not be available. All VPA (Visual Performing Arts) students have been required to take a piano class in the past, and that will end if no faculty are available to teach piano classes.
  3. Debate will no longer be offered as a class during the day. Students will be able to participate after-school only.
  4. Musical theater will no longer be offered as a class during the day. Like debate, students may be able to participate after school. Since our middle daughter is a drama major and emerging “triple threat” (singer, dancer, and performer) who absolutely loves musical theater, this is devastating news. She takes six classes after school per week through the nearby Poteet Theater, and is at ClassenSAS precisely because she could (this year and in previous years) take courses in musical theater DURING school hours. It’s hard to overstate the frustration I feel about this.
  5. All class sizes next year at ClassenSAS will increase, and the average class size next year will likely be 30. Some classes will have over 40 students. One PE class now (this year) has 97 students in it. The size of PE classes like this will go up still further. Elective classes will be much more scarce and much more crowded, especially for middle school students.
  6. Faculty from ClassenSAS needing summer professional development workshops offered by the International Baccalaureate program this summer will not be able to attend. The district has rescinded funds allocated for that purpose. This will not immediately threaten ClassenSAS’ accreditation as an IB school, but if these professional development funds are not available again in future years it could.
  7. District administrators have suggested parents might be prohibited from fundraising to specifically fund teacher positions at ClassenSAS, because a law relating to Title I is being interpreted to say any funds raised by parents at this time must be put into a central pool / pot and evenly distributed among the district’s 70+ campuses. This is an issue which is unresolved and receiving further investigation, but is certainly troubling. Since ClassenSAS is the only school in OKCPS to receive zero ($0.00) Title I dollars, this would be especially ironic as well as unfortunate.
  8. The OKCPS board is scheduled to vote on a proposal May 16th which would make “Financial Literacy” a required, separate course for high school graduation. State mandated financial literacy learning requirements are now fulfilled within a computer/technology course, or students can take an online class on their own. There is not any room in the schedules of ClassenSAS students to take an additional course, nor are there available teachers to teach it. This decision would be academically harmful for students at ClassenSAS, particularly in our current climate of teacher position reductions.

Keep in mind the items listed above were mentioned in last Wednesday’s meeting for parents, and I took notes during the presentation on my phone. I did not record the session, and I certainly could have misunderstood some things. If there are errors in this list, please let me know by leaving a comment or contacting me via Twitter (@wfryer).

This situation obviously calls for action. I’m not suffering under any delusions that this budget crisis and the underlying perceptions of public education which have significantly shaped it will change anytime soon. We have moral obligations, however, to do what we can. I’m planning to:

  1. Attend the March 16th OKCPS board meeting and either speak or stand in support of others who speak to encourage the board NOT to make “Financial Literacy” a new high school course requirement in the district, and specifically not for ClassenSAS.
  2. Contact our OKCPS board representative and other members this week about the same issue.
  3. Setup an appointment to meet with our Oklahoma state representative and senator in the next two weeks to discuss these issues and advocate for substantive tax reforms to address them.
  4. Reduce the registration cost of the June 6-9, 2016 STEM “Mission to Mars” professional development camp for teachers by $370, so instead of $400 teachers will just need to pay $30 for 4 days of hands-on learning. I’ll elaborate on this more in a post tomorrow, but the short version is this: I can’t change the budget realities of our state and schools, but I can change the height of the hurdle for Oklahoma teachers interested in STEM learning to participate in one of the most outstanding learning opportunities of the summer.
  5. Pray for a statewide cultural shift in the way we value and fund public education in Oklahoma.

Please consider what steps and actions you will take to address our educational funding crisis in Oklahoma. We live, thankfully, in a relatively open and free society. It’s time to exercise our Constitutional rights of free expression and freedom of assembly. Sitting Bull said it well:

As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but together we make a mighty fist.

It’s time to speak up and take action, #OklaEd.

Sitting Bull Quotation on Collaboration by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Sitting Bull Quotation on Collaboration” (CC BY 2.0) by  Wesley Fryer 

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