Oklahoma School Funding Paves The Way To A Teacher Walkout

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Above Photo: Communications Workers of America/ Flickr

What would it take for Oklahoma to provide every student the opportunity to learn at the national average?

Oklahoma is one of the states heading for a teachers walkout. Because of a complicated set of reasons, the political challenge facing Oklahoma educators is more formidable than the problems faced in many or most states, so we will mostly be talking about what it will take to head off a disaster. But – like the rest of the nation – we should also ask what it would take to bring all of our kids to the national average in terms of student performance.

The Rutgers Graduate School of Education and Education Law Center just published a blockbuster report which shows that our state spends $7,228 per student for students in the lowest quintile of poverty or $299 per student more than how much funding it would take for those kids to reach the national average in student outcomes.

But the report also shows Oklahoma spends $8,476 per student for kids in the highest poverty percentiles, a whopping $6,654 per student below the cost for our at-risk students just to reach outcomes at the national average.

The report entitled “Shame of the Nation” reminds us that Oklahoma’s student poverty rate is 20% and the free or reduced lunch (FRL) rate is 60%. In 2016, the poverty rate for Oklahoma City was less than 18%. But, the poverty rate for school aged children in the Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) is nearly 40%. This intense concentration of student poverty in OKCPS is the reason why the cost of bringing OKCPS students to the national average in outcomes would require an increase in per student spending for almost all students ranging from almost 50% to nearly 80% per student.

Because I have mostly studied Oklahoma City, I will focus on our schools, but a similar pattern applies to Tulsa and other poor districts. The OKCPS is 85% low-income, but what does that mean? The issue isn’t the number of kids who are identified as low-income using the FRL metric. It has been a good data point for our state’s pretty decent funding formula. But the FRL doesn’t do a good job of documenting the challenges faced by schools serving neighborhoods with the greatest concentrations of generational poverty and trauma.

There are some high-performing charters and traditional public schools in Oklahoma City with high FRL rates, but they are likely to have a range of students who live in generational poverty, in situational poverty, and who are working- or lower-middle class. With the exception of the one full-service community charter school (Hupfeld Academy) which draws upon a partnership with Integris Hospital, no local charters have offered evidence that they face the challenges similar to those faced by the neighborhood schools.

I’m biased because I taught in schools that serve census tracts identified by the Brooking Institute as neighborhoods of “extreme poverty,” or having a 40% or greater poverty rate. I’ve long been frustrated that policy makers often can’t understand the differences between schools serving neighborhoods with lower student poverty and our schools that struggle with intense concentrations of extreme poverty and traumatized kids. In full disclosure, Rutgers is my alma mater and I admire Education Law Center’s decades of advocacy for disadvantaged public school children. I am grateful that they have shown the light on not just the Shame of the Nation, but the shame of our own state failing its most vulnerable and needy students.

I believe the Education Law Center nails one of the most overlooked factors in school improvement:

Student poverty — especially concentrated student poverty — is the most critical variable affecting funding levels. Student and school poverty correlates with, and is a proxy for, a multitude of factors that increase the costs of providing equal educational opportunity — most notably, gaps in educational achievement, school district racial composition, English-language proficiency, homelessness, and student mobility.

Because the complexity of the challenges faced by systems like the OKCPS aren’t widely understood, reformers have repeatedly imposed cheaper and easier shortcuts. When they failed, the blame game was further accelerated. Fortunately, the center’s new research can also create a different context for policy discussions.

Clearly, criticism is deserved for letting Oklahoma slip to 45th in the nation in per student funding. We are not alone, however, in ignoring what it takes to overcome poverty. Oklahoma earns a “C” and is ranked 17th in the nation in terms of funding in an equitable manner. Before cheering our funding formula too much, we should remember that it means that funding is less than $200 per student more generous for districts with 30% as opposed to 0% poverty.

Oklahoma earns a “D” for Fiscal Effort in terms of Gross State Product (GSP), placing us next to Massachusetts. But, wait, Massachusetts has some of the best schools in the United States and the world!?!? The difference is their GSP is almost $20,000 per capita greater than ours. So, Oklahomans need to dig deeper into our pockets if we hope to improve educational opportunity for all. Or we could ask the petroleum industries to dig deeper …

As Oklahoma’s financial problems grow, we’ll face more distractions – such as the claim that reforming our funding formula and instituting more “reforms” can get us out of the woods. The Education Law Center’s analysis refutes that spin. But Oklahoma, especially, should appreciate the case it makes for increased federal investments being essential to providing quality educational opportunities for all.

And it gives Oklahoma another reason to proclaim “Thank God for Mississippi!” Our rival may spend more per student but their concentrated poverty is so much worse that they would have to increase funding for their poorest students by more than $10,000 a student than we would to reach the national average for students outcomes!