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Education Reforms that Would Do Some Good

Several months ago, 1889 Institute published Education Reforms to Make a Difference in which six fundamental institutional reforms to public education in Oklahoma were suggested. Now we publish More Education Reforms to Make a Difference, which suggests six more reforms.

It’s clear that anything other than relatively fundamental institutional reform in public education is only the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. That ship had some fundamental flaws in its metallurgy, and there were flaws in the incentives of how it was handled. Were these flaws not present, 1,200 people might not have prematurely perished. Were some fundamental changes to Oklahoma’s education system enacted, incentives would fundamentally change, and the system would operate to do a better job of producing well-educated high school graduates. 

Only by weakening public education’s iron triangle (elected officials, union/trade associations, and government bureaucrats) will we get anything like real, positive change in public education that leads to more knowledgeable students graduating from high school ready to succeed in other educational endeavors and the careers of tomorrow. 

Prohibit Collective Bargaining and Pass a Meaningful No-strike Law
Elected officials have a fiduciary duty to ALL taxpayers. However, unionized government employees can effectively “hire” their own employers by participating in low-turnout elections, for which school board elections are notorious. Due to the problem of divided loyalty that government-employee collective bargaining creates, several states explicitly prohibit collective bargaining for teachers, including Texas, often cited as a state that pays teachers relatively well.

Incredibly, it is considered legal behavior if local boards declare the schools closed and allow teachers to be absent to protest at the state capitol for higher pay and benefits. This is what happened in 2018, when school boards turned teachers loose to protest at the state capitol. Family lives and the educations of students were interrupted statewide. This loophole needs closing.

Make the State Superintendent of Public Instruction an Appointed Office
Oklahoma’s state governance model in public education is the same as that adopted by only eight other states (AZ, CA, GA, ID, IN, MT, NC, and ND). This recommendation to have the Governor appoint the Superintendent of Public Instruction has much more to do with appearance and unity of governance than education quality.

An elected state schools superintendent is far more likely than one appointed to narrowly construe their constituency to the public education industry, especially teacher unions, administrator organizations, and school board associations. Within just the last several years, the Superintendent of Public Instruction has been embroiled in controversy over a Political Action Committee and has sided with unions in the 2018 highly disruptive teacher strike. Neither would have been issue with an appointed superintendent.

Transfer School Performance Review Responsibilities to the Lt. Governor
The Oklahoma School Performance Review (OSPR) is patterned on the Texas School Performance Review (TSPR), originally overseen by that state’s Office of the Comptroller, a statewide elected position. The TSPR was a newsmaker as long as an elected official was in charge. The incentive was to make it as effective as possible in order to earn unassailable praise.

Right now Oklahoma’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA) oversees the OSPR. The OEQA’s board consists mostly of public education industry insiders, perhaps intended as a way to be sure real expertise is included. However, it also creates potential conflicts of interest in favor of the system and over taxpayers.

Prioritize Early College High School
Why limit concurrent enrollment to only juniors and seniors? Why limit free-tuition hours to only eighteen only for seniors? Given the advent online resources, college-bound high school graduates should be able to earn an associate’s degree (60 college credit hours) by the time they have completed high school, with no additional cost to themselves or to taxpayers. In fact, there is potential for savings.

The following changes to Oklahoma’s dual credit/concurrent enrollment system are recommended:
  • Require high schools to establish on-campus resources for online college courses such as tutoring and technology,
  • Require districts to establish cost-effective online college course offerings and allow students to earn as many credits as they wish, especially if such credits can be earned more cheaply than today’s regular public school classroom, a distinct possibility,
  • Set a goal that every college-bound high school student will graduate with an associate’s degree (60 college credit hours), without extra public expense and without parents/students incurring expense,
  • Allow private college/university participation in the free-tuition program where they are willing to accept state subsidies as low as afforded to public institutions,
  • Eliminate the geographic service area restriction with respect to online courses.
Means-Test Pre-kindergarten
Establishing a universal pre-k program is clearly premature without having first established excellence in teaching early grades. There is conflicting evidence over whether pre-k actually accomplishes anything over the long term for participating children. Even the latest positive study shows that positive impacts only last if children continue to have high-quality teachers every single year. This only begs the question of why we are focusing resources on pre-k before we have established high quality instruction in all grades.

Pre-k should be limited to families whose children are truly eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program and true English language learners.

Ensure Accurate Reporting of Funding-weighted Student Populations
The numerical weights that accrue with certain children in the school funding formula provide an incentive for districts to over-report students who meet certain characteristics in order to game the system for more money. This dishonesty, however, sees some districts effectively stealing from those that are honest, since appropriations for a given year are fixed. Some districts are taking bigger pieces of the pie than they deserve.

Over 60 percent of Oklahoma’s school children are claimed eligible for free/reduced price lunches. These children are weighted more heavily in the funding formula system, meaning more money flows to districts with higher free/reduced price lunch eligibility counts. Eligibility is limited to households at or below 185 percent of poverty. Official statistics show only 49 percent of Oklahoma’s children are below 200 percent of poverty, which means the number of children eligible for free/reduced price lunches in Oklahoma should be less than 49 percent of all school children. Clearly, more children are considered eligible than should be. Some districts are over counting.

English language learners are also over-counted, as indicated by statistics regarding Hispanics in the state. Children so counted also mean enhanced funding to their districts. 

Therefore, to counteract the incentive to over count, careful audits should be conducted. Additionally, parents should be required to show evidence of their claimed low income when applying for free/reduced price lunch eligibility or at least required to sign a sworn statement under penalty of perjury.

Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute Director and can be contacted at 

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