Oklahoma simply can’t afford to decimate its public education system with teacher layoffs, but apparently it’s going to happen.
Oklahoma City Public Schools has announced it’s not renewing the contracts of about 300 teachers next year because of state budget cuts. Tulsa Public Schools has said it won’t renew the contracts of 286 teachers. Anecdotal evidence indicates teacher layoffs or eliminating teaching positions will be widespread throughout the state next fall.
Although Common Education is only facing a 2.9 percent state budget cut in fiscal year 2011 compared to larger cuts faced by other state agencies, districts must plan for future cuts, especially in 2012 when federal stimulus dollars will no longer exist to help avert catastrophe. Some education officials also say the cut actually is closer to 9 percent over last year’s budget.
Teacher layoffs are happening throughout the nation so it’s easy for some Oklahoma public officials and the corporate media here to shrug off the local news as something inevitable, but there are compelling reasons for Oklahoma in particular to limit the loss of teaching positions.
Here are three reasons:
(1) Oklahoma continues to lag behind the nation in producing college graduates. Part of that problem, most education experts argue, has been college preparation in high school. Eliminating teacher positions will create larger class sizes and will most likely hurt borderline students who might have made it to college with individualized attention. The dearth of college graduates here is a chronic problem that hurts economic development. The state doesn’t have a high “quality of life” reputation that could attract businesses. It needs a more educated workforce.
(2) Some recent college graduates who want to teach here and newly hired teachers will surely leave the state to seek work in education or other fields. It’s true that other states are facing budget and economic problems as well, but Oklahoma will surely suffer a brain drain as it has in the past. How many years of this brain drain can the state go through without seriously damaging its education system and quality of life? Other states known for having top tier educational systems can absorb temporary brain drains better than Oklahoma.
(3) If, as economic experts predict, Oklahoma continues to have budget problems through 2013, then that will mean those students starting ninth grade this fall will spend their last years in school under dire circumstances, which will include overcrowded classrooms and lack of computer equipment and new textbooks. It will also mean that some safety nets designed to help students in trouble with grades or family issues will be lost. Other states, which spend much more than Oklahoma on per pupil spending, can adjust better to lean years. Oklahoma’s underfunded educational system leaves absolutely no room for a temporary adjustment.
It bears repeating that Oklahoma has the lowest per pupil spending rate in this region of the country. Even Arkansas and New Mexico spend more money on the education than Oklahoma. This is the elephant in the room that too many local public officials and editorial writers ignore when discussing education here. The bottom line is this: When Oklahoma cuts education funding it’s hurting a system that already is in desperate need of more money to employ more teachers and fund more innovative programs.
The decision to cut education and eliminate teaching positions will hurt the state in the coming years in incalculable ways. It could also create backlash support for State Question 744, which is on the ballot this fall. If the question is approved, the state will have to fund public education at the regional average.