Like many of her fellow teachers, Kate Glasson began the school year anxious and overwhelmed by Oklahoma’s ongoing budget cuts to public education. Glasson has taught 5th grade at Cleveland Elementary School in the Oklahoma City Public School District for 10 years. This year brought increased class sizes across her school, cuts to a lauded art program, the addition of a new math program but no corresponding materials and the loss of three facilities employees whose positions were cut after more than 20 years with the school.
“Morale is at an all-time low,” said Glasson. “We will have a smile on our faces when our children enter our classrooms but it will be different.”
Oklahoma faces a $1.3 billion budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, which resulted in a nearly $110 million budget cut for public education through June 2017. More cuts have been announced for the current fiscal year, including the State Board of Education’s recent decision to cut $38 million from the School Activities Fund.
Oklahoma City Public Schools faces a $30 million budget shortfall. Norman Public Schools experienced a $2.3 million reduction from January to June this past year, with an additional reduction of up to $4.5 million later in the year. Edmond Public Schools is implementing $3.5 million in budget cuts this school year. Moore Public Schools took a $3.1 million hit last fiscal year. Most districts have eliminated staff, reduced programming, increased class sizes and are operating with fewer materials. In July, Oklahoma City Public Schools announced an additional 50 percent cut of fine arts budgets, reduction of elementary student budgets from $25 to $15 and a cut of all library media budgets.
“State budget cuts have devastated this district,” said OKCPS board member Carrie Jacobs. “We are down to the bare bones. Children are bearing the burden for now, but Oklahoma will bear the burden in the long run if we have a generation of students who didn't get the education they deserve.”
Budget cuts aren’t new to any of Oklahoma’s school districts but the size of this year’s shortfall and the mid-year cuts were atypical.
“We’ve had to set priorities,” said Dr. Joseph Siano, superintendent of Norman Public Schools. “We maintain focus on our classrooms and classroom teachers and the programs across the district that have the most impact to the most students.”
Bret Towne, superintendent of Edmond Public Schools, worries that Oklahoma’s failure to offer teachers comparable wages, benefits and working conditions to surrounding states means our colleges and universities are providing “a subsidized export pipeline of well-trained teachers.”
“We have to look at how we fund government in Oklahoma,” said Towne. “We need a bi-partisan plan to adequately fund education and all core services.”
In the meantime, public school districts across the state are making tough choices about how to implement budget cuts and parents are anxious about how their kids will be affected, not just this year, but over the course of their educational careers.
“My biggest concern is that she's going to be getting a fast-food quality education: cheap and lacking in quality or depth,” said Mallory Evans of daughter, Charlotte, who attends Cleveland. “Not through any fault of the faculty at Cleveland but they are just not capable of producing anything worthy of our kids with the tools they are given.”
Programming cuts will have lasting effects
Lisa Laughlin, English teacher at US Grant High School in OKCPS, is most concerned about losing elective courses and after-school programming.
“For so many of our students, that elective course is the only reason they show up to school,” said Laughlin. “It is the best part of their day and it’s their outlet to escape.”
Regular exposure to and participation in the arts has long been shown to benefit students across not only their academic courses, but also character and self-esteem development. As an OKCPS mom and speech-language pathologist for Oklahoma schools, Deirdre Fudge sees firsthand that students regularly participating in fine arts experience reduced drop-out rates, increased attendance, a rise in creativity and an appreciation for team building. Fudge has watched the district’s support of arts and science programs dwindle over the years, even before the budget crisis reached its current peak. When Glasson first began teaching at Cleveland, the school had full-time science, music, art and PE teachers and a part-time strings teacher.
“We were considered an arts and science specialty school and we delivered on that,” Glasson said. “Our students performed very well on standardized tests and students got a very well-rounded education.”
Though art, science and strings have since been cut at Cleveland, the school’s PTA raised funds to partner with Allied Arts to provide an art class to students once a week. The same can’t be said for schools across the district.
Norman Public Schools cut its innovative French Immersion program at Reagan Elementary School, saving the district upwards of $400,000. Begun in 2012, the program provided kindergarten through fifth graders instruction in both English and French. Kisha Shelton had already been granted a transfer for her daughter to attend Reagan when she learned it had been cut.
“We were looking forward to the brain growth and development that happens when learning a new language at a young age,” said Shelton.
A similar enrichment program will be offered across the district this year, allowing students from the program to continue to interact with the language and culture, while also reaching the other 350 kids who weren’t previously exposed.
“We don’t want to lose the whole essence of work we have done,” said Dr. Siano. “It’s not the program we had envisioned and wanted to duplicate across the district, but we had to look at it in a different and more affordable model.”
Jason Engelke, assistant principal for Washington Irving Elementary School in Edmond said while programs like PE and music remain in place in Edmond, those teachers have to teach more classes with less time to develop lesson plans. According to library media specialist Lauren Collings at Central Elementary School, the Putnam City School District has maintained music, arts, library and counseling programs at the elementary level. While other districts are cutting positions like hers, she says her district has provided great comfort and support to its teachers and students. Moore Public Schools has reduced fine arts and athletic budgets but Moore Superintendent Dr. Robert Romines said he’s dedicated to preserving and protecting these programs in his district.
“These are things we have to keep in play to keep students actively engaged and in school,” said Romines. “We would lose kids if we didn’t have these programs.”
Teachers must do more with less
When Stephanie Anderson, an English teacher at Putnam City North High School, returned from holiday break in January, she and her colleagues found their copy room void of paper. Scared the paper supply needed to last until May, administrators locked up all paper and teachers had to ask their principal for a ream at a time. A teacher for 15 years, Anderson has never seen anything like it.
“Seeing the state budget crisis in the news directly affect something so simple like paper made everyone more worried about the future,” Anderson said.
Laughlin hasn’t been able to update textbooks and supplemental resources that align with new standards. She deals daily with a lack of classroom supplies, faulty printers and outdated technology. Glasson worries about how she will teach a new math program without any of the materials. While her principal and parents could use PTA funds to pay for the materials, the district won’t agree to it because other students wouldn’t have access to those same materials.
“I completely understand this desire to keep things equitable but our district is far too large and diverse for a 'what's good for one is good for all' mentality,” Glasson said.
Glasson and others aren’t certain how they will teach without proper materials and resources. But they press on out of obligation to teach their students each day to the very best of their abilities, regardless of the resources available to them.
“Schools, teachers and students are being asked to do more with less,” Anderson said. “That is a very scary situation because the children of Oklahoma suffer.”
As Collings considers the circumstances of her colleagues across the state, and the state government’s culpability in bringing Oklahoma to this point, she is confident in Oklahoma teachers’ abilities and passion for their profession.
“Public school is taking a brutal beating on the floor of the legislature,” Collings said. “However, each day, public school teachers arrive at school willing to go above and beyond for every child. Their goal is to provide the best education possible, no matter the financial circumstances.”
Fewer staff means larger classrooms
Edmond Public Schools will eliminate approximately 30 staff positions this year. Norman Public Schools had to eliminate 150 positions, 40 of them certified staff. Moore Public Schools has handled the majority of cuts through attrition. As positions are eliminated or not rehired, that means more work and more students for remaining staff.
“I'm concerned with teachers being stretched thin, again,” said Rebecca Argo, a language arts teacher at Putnam City’s Capps Middle School, who is teaching an additional core class and grade level to make up for cuts at her school. “I know I'm capable of teaching two grade levels, but it's scary.”
In her second year of teaching, Argo has already seen lifelong and new teachers alike get burned out and leave the profession.
“We want teachers to stay in Oklahoma, but if we’re underpaid, overworked and don’t feel like our professional opinions are valued, then what is the point in staying here?” Laughlin asked. “The threat against our students’ education has become a problem too big to ignore and we’re not going down without a fight.”
While that fight is in play at the Capitol, kids across most districts will see an increase in classroom sizes. Glasson anticipated more than 30 students in Cleveland’s second grade classrooms. Fudge is worried about classes of 35 students or more at Classen SAS. Romines said his own sixth grader has larger classes than what he, as a parent and administrator, believes is optimal.
“This is not what is best for our kids or our teachers,” Romines said. “But if the money isn’t there, it isn’t there.”
As a parent and teacher, Anderson sees the detriment to behavior, individual instruction, teacher-student relationships and developing life-long learners as classroom sizes increase.
“So much emphasis is given to the bottom 25 percent to bring up testing scores and the school report card grades that many teachers don’t have time to challenge advanced learners,” Anderson said. “My daughter is an advanced reader; as long as she is not a behavior issue and does her work, she won’t necessarily be ‘on the radar.’ That scares me.”
In a smaller class, Anderson said teachers would be better able to differentiate instruction and challenge advanced students while also helping those who are struggling. Moore is combating teachers lost to attrition by hiring certified teaching assistants. The district’s assistant superintendent of elementary schools regularly visits schools to determine where help is needed.
“To me, this is a positive,” said Greg Waggoner, assistant principal of Fairview Elementary School. “They alleviate some work off the teacher and have a positive impact on the kids.”
Many educators agree the future of public education in Oklahoma is highly dependent on how the state budget shakes out for the rest of the school year and whether November’s elections bring about change for the entire system. Many educators and administrators are cautiously optimistic that change is coming.
“With so many current and former educators running for elected positions in our state, I am hopeful that Oklahomans will soon see successful representation for students, teachers and schools,” said Collings. “Appropriate school funding, increased teacher pay and a reduction in ineffective high stakes testing are the most important changes that need to be made to improve education in Oklahoma.’
Until system-wide change is a reality, parents can incite small change now by volunteering their time and much-needed supplies to their children’s schools as they are able.
“Ensuring the best education possible happens for each child means parents are involved, attend events at the school and both sides are effectively communicating on a consistent basis,” Atchley said.
Waggoner has been pleased to see local businesses and community members taking a vested interest in Moore schools. Businesses have sponsored school parties, individuals have served as tutors and churches have helped provide holiday gifts to needy families.
“Property owners want schools to be successful because that boosts the economy in your area,” Waggoner said. “It [also] helps takes the pressure off teachers and builds a sense of them not being in this alone.”
Parents can also make a lasting impact at home. Educators agree that reading with or encouraging your child to read every day is essential to their academic development. Anderson said many students in a typical high school classroom read two or more grade levels below where they should be. With the loss or reduction of extracurricular activities at school, parents should seek those opportunities elsewhere to instill creativity and a love of learning. Evans will be signing her daughter up for piano lessons and classes at the Edmond Fine Arts Institute to make up for her diminished art classes at Cleveland this year. Finally, communicating regularly with your child’s teacher is a simple means to offer support for both the teacher and your child’s education.
“As a high school teacher, I often only hear from parents if a grade is low,” said Anderson. “However, in conversations with parents, I am able to provide information beyond the grade. I can say how your child is doing socially, emotionally and offer insight they as teenagers are not always willing to share.”
Administrators agree that despite the uncertainty facing public education, they will keep a positive outlook this year. Engelke stays focused on helping his students progress and on maintaining a positive work environment for his teachers.
“We cannot give our teachers a raise,” said Engelke, “but we can share a smile and joke and a common goal of working for something bigger than ourselves, which is teaching and empowering children.”