As Legislators Weigh School Cuts, a Rising Outcry from Parents and Advocates

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Night after night, state Sen. Josh Brecheen of Coalgate has stayed up until midnight, answering impassioned emails and calls from parents worried their local school district would be lost in a consolidation effort.

Sen. John Ford of Bartlesville says more people are stopping him in Walmart and at church and Rotary Club meetings to unload their viewpoints on the issue.

In Sand Springs, hundreds of parents attended a town-hall meeting in which Superintendent Lloyd Snow asked for help deciding which programs and services should be chopped if education funding cuts continue. To keep the mood light, he called it a “menu of misery” and included a skit in the presentation. But the conversation was bleak.

Across Oklahoma, an apparently growing number of parents, community leaders, educators and other residents are raising louder voices about what they view as a crisis in common education.

The outcry apparently led to impact on Thursday when Ford, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, announced his committee would not hear any school consolidation bills this session, including one he authored. In a written statement, he thanked “the parents, teachers and school patrons who’ve taken the time to share their views and concerns with me, and with their own senators.”

Consolidation is a hot issue in places where people are afraid their local school district will be merged with another. But emotions are running high over other school issues as well.

The overarching one is funding. With the tailspin in oil and gas prices and the revenue plunge, the prospect of additional cuts this and next fiscal years, and even another revenue failure in January 2017, has grown. Teacher pay raises are in jeopardy. More hits to classrooms could be felt in the fall.

Amid the concerns, a House committee on Monday approved a bill to create education savings accounts, a voucher program that would let families divert state money to send their children to private schools. Parents and children, out of school for President’s Day, packed the room for the vote.

Regardless of different views, there is a sense of impending, widespread loss.

Alex Public Schools Superintendent Jason James said he’s getting more questions from residents about issues affecting his district, including how he will deal with budget cuts.

“Last year, when I met people at the community center, they would ask what’s going on at the Capitol,” James said. “Now I get a dozen phone calls or face-to-face conversations where people are asking about specific legislation, like what’s an education savings account.”

Education officials and non-parent advocacy groups – “the education lobby,” as some call it – are doing what they can to stir the embers of protest.

Earlier this month, Moore Public Schools Superintendent Robert Romines sent an email blast saying, “MPS needs your help!” regarding the bill to create education savings accounts, an online news site reported. He directed recipients to a web page with “facts about what could happen to Moore Schools if vouchers move forward in Oklahoma.” The online site, The Middle Ground, criticized Romines for using his official capacity to campaign against the program.

Romines said he reaches out to residents to get their opinions on education issues before speaking to lawmakers. He uses the feedback to discuss what people in his community believe.

John Cox, superintendent of Peggs Public School and president of the Organization of Rural Elementary Schools, said consolidation is the biggest issue driving parents to action. Small community schools feel threatened by the proposal, he said.

Legislators may be accustomed to hearing from teachers and administrators on issues, but when parents turn out in droves, the impact is amplified, he said.

“Sometimes, it appears we’re just trying to save our job,” Cox said. “With parents, it’s saying, ‘We’re trying to protect our kids.’”

Snow, the Sand Springs superintendent, said in reference to his town hall, “We’re just trying to prepare our people to be a part of the conversation, more than anything.”

On the menu of possible cuts in the district: transportation, athletics, counseling and art. Plus, class sizes will likely go up.

“We talked about the real pain and anguish that could happen in this district and will happen in all districts. It’s just a matter of time,” said Snow, who’s been at Sand Springs Public Schools for 36 years.

“I think part of the solution is parent power,” he said. “…They’re reactive to the pain. When the pain is turned up, that’s when they’re more likely to show up.”

Snow said the last time he could recall droves of parents involved in school politics was in 2011, when the state approved the third grade retention law. That law requires children to pass a reading test by the end of third grade. Parents packed school meetings, which were moved to an auditorium.

Tulsa Public Schools parent Sarah Dougherty said social media is a key reason more parents are involved. Dougherty’s two children attend Lee Elementary School.

Word of Monday’s House committee vote on education accounts first spread on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Dougherty said. Parents shared those posts as well as how to contact lawmakers and when and where the hearing would be.

“There’s just a quickness to it,” Dougherty said. “Parents can get engaged and follow through on what information is available.”

The greater involvement also could be an election-year phenomenon. In addition to the presidential race, Oklahoma’s ballot could have several controversial state questions, including a proposal to hike the sales tax to help fund education.

Sen. Ford cited feedback from constituents as one of the reasons he won’t hear school consolidation bills this session. It’s important to listen to residents to be an effective politician, he said.

“At the end of the day, we are a reflection of our community,” Ford said. “If they like us, we get re-elected. If they don’t, we don’t come back.”

  • Joyce

    Vouchers is just another way to move money to wealthy families that already have their children in private school! Trust me it is also away to discriminate against minority, special education and poor families! It will devastate public schools and result in larger classroom size! Fight for public schools. Without public education many children will be trapped in poverty!

    • The public education will leave your child in poverty for the rest of their lives if we don’t get a handle on funding.. Our prisons are full of undereducated Okies.. Is that where you want yours kids heading.. I worked my butt off to put my two in private schools for as long as I could. Wealth has nothing to do with desire to have your kids educated.. I think Okla is toooo Republican to spend money and find funding on education..

  • Stacy Frisbie, MSN, RN

    I find it offensive that they call parents, without the huge financial backing of corporations “the education lobby”. Did the ever consider that our “special interest” is the most important part of the situation? It’s our children and their futures! It’s also disheartening that they don’t value the advocacy of those who advocate for our kids in the schools. I can see first-hand how much my childrens’ teachers care about their students and how much thought administrators put into making decisions that put children first. They are not simply “protecting their jobs”, they are standing for public education! Listen to them legislators! They know what they’re talking about, and we parents trust “them” way more than the politicians in our state.

    Stay active parents, this is the way democracy is SUPPOSED to work!

    • Oklahoma Watch

      Stacy, just to clarify: In using the term “the education lobby,” legislators and others are referring to non-parent groups and individuals, such as district administrators and reps from education associations and other nonprofits. We revised the wording slightly to make clearer.

  • Jean Hastings

    I am both a parent and a public school employee. My parents always taught me the value of a good education; they were both depression era babies and had not been afford that themselves. They also taught me, on a more.broad economic basis, that you put a little extra money in something you rely on ( a good pair of shoes, a reliable watch, etc.). Reader, we have to start funding education if we are going to rely on this upcoming generation to be the workers to support our businesses and communities. Our students are valued with the lowest funded education. Yes, teachers want a pay raise, but after seven years of receiving the same pay, they are working for far less. There has been no COLA adjustments, no value to higher cost to get the degree necessary, and the testing and cost for testing required for certification has risen greatly. Our children, our students, our.future is worth the investment!

  • Gary Morrison

    I think vouchers are a great idea. If everyone has the same amount of portable money to spend on their children’s education, the bad schools will die and the good and efficient ones will flourish. That’s as it should be, if you truly care about your children’s education. There may be sacrifices like having to drive the urchins farther to school and pay a little extra for this or that, but a good education starts at the very beginning and is a priceless thing worthy of much sacrifice.

    It’s a very interesting but slightly irrelevant issue for us as we are grandparents who have been drafted by our children to help home school their children when they are old enough. I have seldom witnessed children better educated, more well rounded, more mature, thoughtful and simply more confident in their own ‘skin’ than those who have been home schooled. (with a couple of notable exceptions… 🙂 But the exceptions do prove the rule…

    People should consider home schooling if they can possibly swing it. You learn, the children learn better and at their own pace with ‘teachers’ more motivated and aware of each child’s strengths and weaknesses than could ever be possible in a classroom with 20 or 30 children present. Also, the family that learns together, stays together. You can be there to damn well make sure they know their stuff and still be creative with field trips and other interesting things to give necessary breaks and stimulate learning on an individual basis. You see immediately what works and what doesn’t and make instant corrections. You can discover what your children are good at and give them more of that while still working on the problem areas. Soon, you and they will know what God has created them to pursue in this life. That is power.

    Home schooled children typically score two or three grades (or more) beyond their age and have a tremendous advantage if they decide to pursue higher education (like not being vulnerable to the propaganda they may be exposed to in certain universities) and in being secure, confident and socially relaxed in any job or career they choose.

    Be all that as it may, on the very bright side, at least Oklahoman’s don’t have to deal with the caustic dumbing down of the young by Common Core….. bllleahhhch!

  • jg

    Why have parents been silent until the subject of school consolidation becomes an appealing alternative for funding education to our state leadership? Several friends, who are experienced public school teachers, are frustrated at the lack of parental interest in their children’s education until the threat of an inconvenience, such as school closing and/or consolidation reveals the underlying answer. It’s a family issue. Their child is under-performing in the classroom, a discipline issue, and/or has attendance problems that the parent(s) have not acknowledged and are avoiding. The parents are denying there’s a problem and don’t want to face their failure at home. Schools are a reflection of our society. Teachers are not the students’ parents so the children take advantage of the lack of discipline. Until parents become accountable for their children’s behavior and the discipline required in the learning process, the public schools will continue to suffer. Their consolidation and ultimate closing are the result of the parents’ abdication of responsibility.

  • fin oreilly

    As a non-teacher I would appreciate a response as to why certain the following changes are not implemented:
    1. The disparity between the pay of District Supervisors. Maybe the pay for Administrators should be a set standard amount for each child in all of the District. Larger districts would get higher pay for more students and smaller
    districts with less kids would be paid less.
    2. Before a teacher gets full time pay and benefits, shouldn’t they have a typical work/school schedule closer to the average 2080 hours that other professionals work rather than the 1040 they are required? (Or at least cut out the long summer vacation, fall break and spring break. The longer hours could help in justifying higher wages. Plus our students would have a better chance at a complete education.