Good day, readers. As 2021 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on our education coverage over the past year.
From debates over masks in schools, to coronavirus surges that threatened in-person schooling, to ongoing investigations at Epic Charter Schools, it was a turbulent year. Our most important education stories focused on how schools and policymakers are addressing the pandemic’s effect, how political fights over coronavirus precautions have stretched an already strained school system, and the ongoing fallout from a lack of oversight of the state’s online charter school behemoth.
Here are 10 education stories that shaped 2021:
Public school enrollment declined for the first time in decades as parents chose alternatives amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many students – especially 4- and 5-year olds – skipped formal schooling altogether, and others tried homeschooling or private schools. Enrollment at virtual charter schools boomed.
At the start of 2021, vaccines were not yet available to teachers, and some school districts were sticking with virtual instruction. Gov. Kevin Stitt refused to implement a statewide mask mandate, which many educators said was essential to holding in-person school safely. He made an aggressive push to immediately open all schools, at times picking fights with schools that were proceeding cautiously.
Stitt in April signed into law two new education reform measures. One allows students to more easily and frequently transfer schools; the other alters the school funding formula in a way supporters say allows public education money to follow the student, but detractors say will destabilize school budgets. Both take effect in 2022: the transfer law on January 1, and the funding formula in July for the 2022-23 school year.
Epic’s learning fund is one of its biggest attractions, but it was also kept secret for years by the school’s management company, despite using public money to buy items for student learning. In April, Epic settled a contract dispute with its main authorizer, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, and agreed to make the learning fund public and school-operated starting July 1. (The Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector sued the company to gain access to learning fund records and plans to release a second Epic audit, focused on these funds, soon.)
Congress has authorized three relief packages to aid the coronavirus recovery. Oklahoma received $2.3 billion for education, 90% of which went directly to schools through a formula that prioritized schools serving low-income students. We published a chart showing each district’s allocation. I’ve also been covering how school leaders are spending that money and plan to continue well into 2022.
Chaos reigned at the start of the 2021-22 school year as school leaders grappled with bringing students and teachers back into classrooms amid a coronavirus surge driven by the delta variant. In the spring, the Legislature banned school mask mandates, and in September a judge put the law on hold. Schools were allowed to require masks as long as they offered the ability for parents to opt their children out.
Rumors swirled for months that Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, would run for governor. She is term-limited in her position. And in October, she did announce plans to run, with a twist – the lifelong Republican switched parties to run as a Democrat.
When schools reopened in August, many had lifted coronavirus precautions from the previous year, such as mandatory masking, quarantines and isolation, and keeping students in smaller groups. Teachers by then had plenty of time to get vaccinated. But many contracted the virus in breakthrough cases. Most were mild cases, but at least five Oklahoma educators and school personnel have died since August.
Results from state testing in spring 2021 showed students lost ground in nearly every grade and subject. Fewer students took the exams, leading the state Education Department to caution the public against comparing districts or previous years.
The new governing board at Epic Charter Schools has worked hard to shake off a dark cloud of suspicion that followed the school under its previous management and has made many efforts to come into compliance with the law. But the unexpected resignation of its vice chairwoman this month brought fresh concerns about harassment and a hostile work environment, resulting in a new state investigation.
Looking ahead to 2022, what education coverage is most important to you? I’d love to hear from you via email or DM. There will be no Education Watch newsletter next week. I hope everyone has a joyful and restful holiday.
— Jennifer Palmer
- Far fewer public and private schools require masks this year, even after court cleared the way for mandates. [StateImpact Oklahoma]
- Districts across the country experienced a second year of enrollment losses as the COVID-19 pandemic continue to disrupt public education. [NPR]
- Oklahoma lawmaker files bill to reframe the teaching of slavery in Oklahoma public schools. But he did not review the state’s curriculum standards first to determine if the bill was even necessary. [The Oklahoman]
- Superintendents faced budget challenges long before the pandemic, and the one-time boost from the federal government will not be enough to solve them. [The Hechinger Report]
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