Do Oklahomans Spend too much on Education Admin?

In my town of around 2,300 people and a school district of about 1,000 students, the last superintendent’s annual salary was around $115,000 including benefits. This isn’t even arguing that he wasn’t worth every penny. Where I have problems, is that in my county of around 8,000 people, there are another three more relatively compensated superintendents. That’s four superintendents for about 2,000 children. This is a similar pattern as detailed in a 2014 report by

At Reydon Public Schools in western Oklahoma, the superintendent makes $116,000 a year, including benefits, to oversee one of the smallest districts in the state, at 124 students. That’s $936 per student, compared to $6 for Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard, the highest paid superintendent this year, at $260,000.

According to the same report, in 2011 Oklahoma had 524 public school districts, down to 517 by 2014. Measured against the rest of the nation of students per district and that places Oklahoma at 44th of 51 states including the District of Columbia. Given that in the same year, Oklahoma ranked 48th out of 50 in per-pupil spending while spending on district oversight increased by nearly 13 percent when adjusted for inflation. This means that the actual money spent in classrooms educating children has decreased as more is spent on oversite.

I understand the problems many communities face. Oklahoma’s geography is limiting, such as in Western Oklahoma, where closing one school to consolidate with another would mean bussing in students from over 30 miles away. This is an unreasonable burden even if the expenses justify it. This is also why many districts fight against consolidation. I’m not calling for that. I don’t want to close individual schools, but to look at the actual administration of the schools.

Consider how other states such as Texas run their city-wide unified school districts. Texas ISDs maintain independent campuses, but a unified administration with only one extremely competent superintendent and staff. To put numbers to that, Lewisville ISD in Lewisville, TX has enrolled 52,045 students as of March of 2018 over 69 campuses, grades K-12. They are led by Dr. Kevin Rogers, Superintendent of Schools, and Dr. Lori Rapp, Deputy Superintendent. That’s one Superintendent and one deputy, both Ph.D.’s officiating the education of over 50,000 students. Back on the North bank of the Red River, compare this to the county I call home, where four separate school districts, complete with four admin staffs, service only around 2,000 students.

Likewise, if it were possible to cut Oklahoma’s 3.2-percent rate of spending on district oversight to that of Hawaii’s, the lowest in the nation at 0.5 percent, the savings would amount to $249 per student, or $165 million, a year. That isn’t going to solve all of Oklahoma education’s budgetary woes, in fact, very few of them, but if every dollar of that were to go to Oklahoma’s teachers, it would amount to a pay raise of more than $3,000 per year.

Will consolidating many of the school’s administrations solve all of their problems? Hardly, but is it somewhere we need to be looking. Yes, and in fact, it’s one of the easiest options we have.

Kentucky v Vanderbilt

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It’s Not Just About the Money

Before education, I used to work in Silicon Valley. Everywhere I looked there were young, energetic, genius, Ivy League engineers all with hopes of becoming the CEO founder of the next great start-up. They all wanted to die rich and were willing to make sacrifices to make it a reality. They had a saying, “Entrepreneurs are the only people in the world willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”

To that, I would respond that teachers are the only people who would work 80 hours a week so that no one else has to.

Over the last few sections, I’ve tried my best to communicate that the difficulties facing Oklahoma teachers are not just about the low salary. I’m not discounting that either. It is a truly mortifying dishonor to know that among our only educational achievements is to have the lowest pay rate among teachers in the entire nation. This creates a hardship for our teachers. There’s no question about that, but at the same time, we also can’t say that a simple pay raise will stop teachers from fleeing the state like the plague.

We have to acknowledge that teachers are suffering in life because of their jobs. They face little security as they can never know how the state will intrude in their education or if their fate will be determined by poorly worded test. They are constantly required to revamp everything they know and throw away whatever few resources they had available. Few observers outside the profession even understand that even in a technology-rich era many of the resources our modern education system was built on no longer exist. Despite the advances we take for granted, nothing has yet been created to replace what is lost for educators that is both meaningful and financially realistic at the scale it is needed. Meanwhile, as resources are constantly taken away the bar must continuously be raised because obviously, the fault is with our teachers. They are blamed for the failures of children, while few people acknowledge that they are held responsible to overcome the realities of a failing state.

How do too many teachers cope? They throw themselves into the job and usually, at the cost of many other aspects of life. There is something to be said for the number of days a year that teachers get off, that it is part of the bargain. Many teachers enter the profession knowing its hardships because of the tradeoff that they get to spend more time with their family. They get to be active and engaged with their community in spite of their low earnings. That’s fine… until it isn’t.

As it stands today, teachers don’t have this necessary work-life balance that is particularly important to an industry dominated by women. People need to ask themselves questions about why so many teachers have hardships in marriage and family life that many people don’t get. It isn’t that every job has their hardships. There is something different and terrible about being a teacher, and particularly so in a place like Oklahoma, outlined far better in this testimonial than anything I could say:

I cannot be both a good mother and a good teacher. 

The name really says it all. This is a real thing for teachers. They feel that they can’t have lives outside of work. If you want honesty, there a lot of people who get fulfillment out of working 80 hours a week, but most teachers don’t. If we are just being rational, their productivity probably isn’t that great when they’re falling asleep grading at 11:30 in the PM, after spending countless hours creating a brand new lesson plan to replace last year’s… which is made up primarily of activities they bought with their own money. Now, add to this a salary that is basically capped around $30,000, then yeah, why would you surprised that good teachers are leaving the state, or worse, the industry? Honestly, many would be fine without more money, but creating a terrible life where they can’t even be there for their families? That’s a problem that needs to be solved.

The pay needs to be increased. It does, but respect needs to be given to the hardships these teacher’s face. That’s not only respect in the form of the kind words of politicians. It’s respecting the fact that most of their hardships are completely preventable, and not due to their own failures nearly as much as they rest at the feet of decisions made by a completely broken bureaucracy devoid of reason, strategy, or self-awareness to how much harm they cause in the name of progress.

Oklahoma really needs to understand this, because as I write, teachers are preparing to strike. Among the demands, many are calling for is a teacher pay raise of as much as $10,000 across the state. With between 40,000 and 46,000 teachers in the state, that amounts to $400 million to nearly half a billion dollars. Frankly, that completely unrealistic demand is going to be wasted if we think it will affect meaningful change in the lives of teachers should nothing else be done. The money isn’t the only thing that holds teachers back and fixing those problems could do just as much to keep teachers in the classroom as throwing money at them. So I have to wonder, is anyone in Oklahoma City or even in many of the local administration offices, asking the necessary question, “How much money could we save on paying teachers by just not making their lives suck so much?”

A close up of a man in a suite with his hands tied up with red tape.

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Is School Choice Oklahoma’s Best Choice?

As I write, I realize the hurdles facing Oklahoma education. Social, cultural, political, bureaucratic, and in many ways, hampered by an environment devoid of trust for teachers and simultaneously with no trust whatsoever for the legislatures. Our education regardless, our education system is in decline, as it has been for quite some time. I doubt when I graduated in 2004 that I was as well educated as my mother, also of my alma mater. When I went to teach there years later, I was sure that we weren’t providing even at the level my wife and I received. We are failing. On many levels, we are failing, and I wonder if reforms will ever resolve the gap between what is and what should be. I honestly wonder if a complete shift in how Oklahoma educates is the only real solution.

That’s what brought me to the subject of school choice.

School Choice is the option that parents have the option to send their children who are attending failing schools run by the state to private charter schools with less state oversite and management where they believe their child will have greater success. A charter school is a private school that uses state and local tax funding in place of tuition. This is known as a voucher program, where the voucher represents the child’s share of taxes that would have gone toward public education now used as the tuition of the charter school. Since charters rely on state tax funding, they aren’t traditional private schools open only to the very wealthy. Working class children or children of any background are admitted, provided they follow the rules. Normally, these schools rank very highly in any objective measurements of pupil learning, while some are specialized, such as those meant to teach and preserve native culture. Their implementation and growth, however, have been severely hampered by various interest groups, meaning that there are very few of these schools with very few seats available, often necessitating a lottery where parents register in the hopes that their child will randomly be awarded one of the few open seats.

One of the interest groups preventing charter schools becoming more widespread is the public school system itself. Of the state’s some 560 school districts, only 30 are charters. There are many reasons that state education would resist a move towards charters, but the primary reason is that competition with private schools would force painful, and often necessary reforms even faster than what is demanded by marches and protests.

Here’s why.

School vouchers are a program where schools are forced to compete for students. Vouchers allow for the creation of charter schools in areas that are too poor to afford the high tuition of private schools. Vouchers break down the total budget of a district to the student, saying very coldly that if there are 1000 students in a district, each child is worth 0.1% of the budget. If the school’s budget is $10,000,000, then the child rates $10,000 that the locality and state are willing to put toward their education. With a voucher, a parent can transfer their student and take those dollars as the tuition for the charter school. This removes the funds from the public school, which is where competition comes into play. For example, if parents aren’t satisfied funding sports program where their child receives a third of the per-pupil spending of an athlete for the same tax dollars… they don’t have to. And if Mrs. Teacher doesn’t want to work at a school where her talents aren’t as appreciated as a coach who constantly fails in his education duties, maybe she doesn’t have to teach in that environment either. Or maybe there are other reasons. Maybe parents and teachers want an environment dedicated to more Science exploration. And you want to be honest about something? There are a lot of teachers who don’t like working in schools where you could lose your job for having a cross with a verse from the book of Corinthians on it. And if we are being more honest, there are a lot of parents who don’t want their kids going to schools where religion has been anti-septically cleansed from the curriculum and the culture. Oklahoma’s in the middle of the Bible Belt for goodness sakes, but while we preach the virtues of individuality, we demand our teachers and students repress this fundamental aspect of their lives and woe to anyone who teaches a history of Christianity that isn’t saturated with cynicism, if you’re allowed to teach the history of the largest population in the world, at all.

If we are speaking honestly, School Choice solutions are where innovations are going to come from. Oklahoma schools are failing, stagnant at best and unequipped to offer competitive compensation for teachers, or even resources for their classrooms. When individual schools are allowed to follow the evidence to create new methods, they discover solutions that work for everyone.

Don’t believe me? Ask Science teachers about controlled experiments. A control (the public schools) is measured against other samples trying different things. Some fail, but others reveal new discoveries. You repeat the experiments with the successful batches as the new controls and repeat. This is evolution.

Charters allow for experimenting with different solutions to today’s problems. Why is this good? Because if a charter school discovers a new method that creates better results, more efficiency, or happier teachers and students, everyone gets to copy that model. We all benefit. Maybe even one of them will discover a model to keep the sports alive or specialize in teaching our ESL students with new methods for the rest. Compare that to today, where all innovation comes from the broken system that is Oklahoma Education, and you’ll see why we’re stagnant and inept to implement new ideas or retain quality educators.

If schools want to keep the kids, and the tax dollars associated with them, they will be forced into making decisions that prove to parents their kids are better off with the public school. Furthermore, teachers will have something they’ve never had either… a choice in where they work. As of now, no matter where you work, it’s all still under the same state department. Maybe that’s the problem, so maybe teachers would rather work where the only avenue to a better quality of life wasn’t a walkout. With choices, schools who want to keep parents and quality teachers are going to need to make meaningful changes now, which is good for everyone.

Despite this, another group has incentives to fight charter schools — teachers unions. Organized labor in the education industry also has incentives to resist charter programs as teachers unions, even in very red states like Oklahoma, still exercise a great deal of leverage over Oklahoma politics. This is often why mentioning school choice invites a lot of hate in the education world.

Charter schools are private institutions that can run by their own theories and best practices in pursuit of what they believe is the best path for their kids. This means that the unions have very little pull there. It also means that in many private schools, teachers get paid even less, but what they get in compensation is often reduced or even free tuition for their children, more resources, and far greater autonomy in the classroom. I have a friend who teaches in the Chicago area under a similar system and is far happier with the marginal pay cut than to work in the public school system. But even if teachers are happier, teachers unions can’t be in support of something that will rob their coffers and their membership numbers. All that’s saying is be suspicious when your building rep for the local unions has nothing good to say about such programs. This isn’t to say some charters haven’t failed or that they are perfect, but to know the incentives of the people you speak to on subjects you want to know more about.

Having said all of this, and at the current rate, Oklahoma will never be a leader in education. We may never even be on par with the rest of the country, no matter the protests, outrage, or demands for more money from a state which has none. More terrifying, if we can’t fix our education crisis, the solutions for our future won’t come from Oklahoma either. This means that we need to start making some revolutionary changes to the fundamental way in which education is done in Oklahoma. School choice is one of the most disruptive of these choices, but perhaps it’s also our best option.

That’s why I advocate for school choice. I want this to sink in, I am a former public school teacher married to a current public school teacher, arguing for school choiceListen to what I have to say.

Next Article: It’s Impossible to Teach Without Books or Start at the Beginning


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What Can Be Done for Oklahoma Education?

Summing up what options lay in front of Oklahoma, there’s a lot that can be done. But there are no quick fixes.

  • We could raise taxes on current businesses, but that will have a lot of costs associated with it, like driving out one of the few industries remaining.
  • We could cannibalize other programs, from other state programs to programs in the school, which sucks but it is probably what we will have to settle with.
  • We could deregulate education. I really wish we would, but that will do nothing for the state’s broader budget problems.
  • We need to look to our administration costs and if technological innovations make it possible to rethink how it’s always been done.
  • We could rewrite our current immigration policy to ease the burden on schools.
  • Or we can open up school choice that will force the responses from schools to make better choices themselves.

There are many ideas. What won’t help is making demands without understanding where the resources for them are going to come from. Currently, teachers are threatening to walk out if demands totally some $1.5 billion in new funding isn’t allocated to Oklahoma schools. That amounts to about a third of Oklahoma’s annual appropriation budget. It won’t happen. The money doesn’t exist to be given.

So when we come to the table, we need to acknowledge that. Most of our problems aren’t Republican or Democrat in nature. They aren’t because of greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, or extortionist educators. Oklahoma just got the short end of the stick in a lot of ways. We’re just poor. Life’s not fair. And making matters worse, we’ve gone long enough without making reforms that now those reforms seem impossible to overcome. But blaming won’t solve our problems. Acknowledging the hardships on all sides first to meet the demands of everyone else, that’s the first step, then to come to the table looking for real solutions for everyone.

Oklahoma is a stiff-necked people. We aren’t quick to compromise or budge. But we are extraordinarily good at doing things which are hard. That’ what we are all going to have to solve this crisis. We’re going to have to come to the table and have some very, very hard conversations. I have full confidence we will, as Oklahoma is a culture of character, hard work, and determination. So long as we remember that about each other, and work to what is best for everyone, I have full faith and confidence my daughter’s future will be brighter than my own.

This concludes The War Elephant’s series on Education in Oklahoma. If you haven’t read from the beginning, you can do so here: What’s with the Oklahoma Education Crisis?

I want to thank everyone who read the series and all the teachers who shared it. As I said I used to be a teacher, but left the industry to pursue writing full time. I also said that you should know the motivations of those you allow to influence you. Most of my new income comes through funding from patrons and sponsors through the social funding site Patreon. That means that my only motivation is to educate people with integrity, to tell the truth as best as I can see it, and to make this truth available for free. I do that so that as many people as possible volunteer their support by becoming my patrons.

That’s why I thank each and every one of you who read and shared the posts in this series. You make it possible for me to continue to reach others and to support our family. Having said all of this, thank you for reading. If you liked this series, please like and follow The War Elephant on Facebook and if you would like to join others in helping me make more content like this, please visit my Patreon Support Page to support the page.

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The High Costs of High School Sports

Let’s address an elephant in the room. Many teachers are unhappy with the inordinate amount of attention and funding school sports get when they lack resources in the classroom.

I want to enlighten you on frustrations I personally have with Oklahoma education — sports. It isn’t that I hate sports. I played and played well, but as an educator, I saw the lavish expenditures directed to the sports programs, which neither benefit all students nor have a statistically meaningful impact on most of their lives and future success. Given that, you really have to ask questions about why the Science program is underfunded and why kids graduate from English who “still cain’t read good.”

You’d think that given the nature of the crisis, sports would have suffered more in the way of cutbacks. In many places, they have, but in much of the state, however, the programs continue to grow as other cuts are made in other core areas. The culture is what it is and many people have their greatest memories on the field, so they expect the schools to participate, and if they participate, they better win. For this reason, coaches have far more power to demand what they “need” than an objective assessment of the programs would allow. Consider the price tag one a football stadium being built and maintained each year, along with a gymnasium, a baseball field, a softball field, not to mention the buses and all travel requirements, hiring referees, and even insurance when at a typical school maybe a third of the kids will ever get participate in that program.

On the subject of costs of school sports, we have to talk about coaches. I want to be fair here, some are the best teachers in the world are coaches. The teacher who inspired me to go into education was a coach. He rode his bike to work every morning, pushed us harder than any of the other teachers, and was completely unforgettable in a good way. But just as likely as those paragons, are the many who entered education attempting to fulfill their failed aspirations of sports stardom by becoming a History teacher as their route back into sports… which is why so many kids suck at History. Because of this ability to fill two roles, someone who can coach is a premium over a dedicated classroom teacher. Anyone who is honest with themselves will accept that isn’t a strategy for academic success.

And this is all before stipends. Much of our salary shortfalls go into paying the additional pay a teacher receives if they are a coach. It amounts to a fairly significant pay raise to be a coach/teacher. Multiply that by the ever-growing number of coaches and you start to see where the funds are being channeled. I really want to stress that some of the Coach-Teachers are the best teachers I have ever known, but far too many simply suck as educators. That’s because, to them, this school, this field, these kids, aren’t their students. They aren’t future engineers, professors, soldiers, business leaders, or citizens who need a good education; they are just a ticket to their next coaching position at a bigger school, maybe college ball where they no longer have to teach, or maybe even the pros. It is not about the classroom for far too many coaches, and many Oklahoma educators (who don’t coach) are fed up with the inequities.

Something necessary to point out — some school sports programs are profitable. There are some schools with programs meaningful enough to the community that the revenue from ticket sales is enough to pay for part of the sports programs. In some places, it works, but most of the state, particularly small towns where they haven’t seen a state championship run since the Reagan administration, that’s hard to see working. It’s harder still to see that the few sports that make money from ticket sales and concessions, such as football and basketball, justify the spending for the programs that don’t. Every town is different, but many are caught in a game of athletic Keeping up with the Joneses, and they’re losing it.

This is where the strategy of education comes. What is the goal of Oklahoma Education? If it is producing a mountain of failed athletes who have no understanding of higher order Math, no critical-thinking skills, a failure to contextualize historical events to modern day concerns, an inability to perform technical communication, no sense of civic responsibility, and who think Science is the art of making colorful slime out of glue and Borax, then Oklahoma is doing fantastic. If Oklahoma actually wants to invest in its future survival, it’s going to need to give kids the actual skills that businesses need. This isn’t asking for a replacement for technical schools or colleges. Businesses want to invest in Oklahoma’s resource wealth, but they can’t find enough people to employ that can learn to do that job. But what solutions are we bringing to the table for the budget crisis? About a sixth of the state’s school districts went to four-day weeks instead of having the really hard conversation about where the money can be found within their own budgets.

To make my point clearer, an example can be found for in what one Texas School did to survive its own crisis.

Last year in Texas, whose small towns are the spiritual home of high-school football and the inspiration for Friday Night Lights, the superintendent brought in to rescue one tiny rural school district did something insanely rational. In the spring of 2012, after the state threatened to shut down Premont Independent School District for financial mismanagement and academic failure, Ernest Singleton suspended all sports—including football.

To cut costs, the district had already laid off eight employees and closed the middle-school campus, moving its classes to the high-school building; the elementary school hadn’t employed an art or a music teacher in years; and the high school had sealed off the science labs, which were infested with mold. Yet the high school still turned out football, basketball, volleyball, track, tennis, cheerleading, and baseball teams each year.

Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.

“I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms,” says Singleton, who has spent 15 years as a principal and helped turn around other struggling schools. “This was the worst I’ve seen in my career. The kids were in control. The language was filthy. The teachers were not prepared.” By suspending sports, Singleton realized, he could save $150,000 in one year. A third of this amount was being paid to teachers as coaching stipends, on top of the smaller costs: $27,000 for athletic supplies, $15,000 for insurance, $13,000 for referees, $12,000 for bus drivers. “There are so many things people don’t think about when they think of sports,” Singleton told me. Still, he steeled himself for the town’s reaction. “I knew the minute I announced it, it was going to be like the world had caved in on us.”

The Case Against High-School Sports

I know that a lot of people love what they once had. They still wear that ring and tell the world how high school sports made them who they are today. I’ve seen that personally. We had a state championship team from back in 1960’s which went on to create two army generals, several doctors, and a host of other high achievers. This was in a school that graduated some thirty kids a year back then, which makes the potency of that class remarkable. It was clear that being part of that team made many of them who they were. But it isn’t the 1960s anymore when taxpayers didn’t need to spend so much per student on sports. Given the inflation in facilities, labor costs, insurance, equipment, and any number of other variables, we no longer live in a time when it makes economic sense for most schools. No other country in the world spends on sports in the way that even poor states like Oklahoma does, and we’re beginning to see how that is affecting our long-term strategies for success. Spending for it has gone beyond any possible investment value and now exists in a cannibalistic relationship with the Math, English, History, and woe unto thine humble arts programs.

Oklahoma has simply taken the love of sports too far, or at the very least no longer realize that the game has changed, fiscally speaking. On a district level, we need to begin having those conversations – not just on cutting a few positions, but if entire programs need to go. In a cash-strapped reality, sports are a luxury; English, History, Math, and Science are the necessities. This is especially true for schools where major outlays in sports prevent more prudent decisions from happening.

Look, I love school sports as a concept. I played all the way, and it may have even helped me personally. Of course, a lot more of that I credit to the Marines, where many of my boot camp buddies never stood under Friday night lights. I learned more about pushing myself, nutrition, physical fitness, and overcoming hardship in one week of boot camp than seven years of academic athletics. It was also in the Marines, during my first deployment to Iraq, that I realized just how little I understood about the world. That was due to another coach, one whose job was to teach us about the world and its history but spent most class periods talking about “the game”, whichever game that was. Frankly, I could have really used an understanding of Arab culture, political realities of the Middle East, and the cultural divide between the West and the Islamic faith far more than talking about one of my classmate’s missed lay-ups. Given that it was 2003, two years after 9/11 and now that we were involved in our second simultaneous Middle Eastern war, it’s actually pretty messed up he allowed himself to fail. I took care of that on my gap on my own, but that night in Iraq I no longer worshipped my coaches as being above reproach.

That’s the thing I can’t get past. I don’t think coaches suck. It’s that you never know what you’re getting. They really aren’t average; they are either rock stars or rocks. In a very important way, two coaches inspired me to become an educator, one who had a style in his classroom that inspires me to this day, and one who made me see the flaws and dangers in putting this much responsibility on the shoulders of teachers who have more incentive to be on the field than in the classroom. What this signifies isn’t anything about coaches themselves, just that coaches aren’t held to the same standards. Rockstar coaches are allowed to shine, but rocks are still allowed to sink the ship. That needs to change.

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Illegal Immigration’s Impact on Oklahoma Schools

No need to pretend, this is going to be an uncomfortable conversation that’s not very politically correct. Immigration affects different parts of the country very differently. Oklahoma’s vicinity to the Southern border and it’s very low cost of living, among many other factors, makes it attractive for many Mexican immigrants, and ideal for many who are living in the United States illegally.

I really didn’t understand this until one day in class.

In my classes, I asked tough questions. One day, a conversation came up about illegal immigration. I looked to some of my Mexican students, who are not a minority where we live, and asked them point blank if they thought illegal immigration was as common as people say. I expected responses to either downplay it or silence if it was. To my surprise, they very openly acknowledged how common illegal immigration was. Some outlined the processes by which coyotes bring new immigrants over, the specialists who forge documents, relationships with drug cartels, and much more that left my jaw hanging. Finally, I asked, “So in your opinion, how many of the Hispanic kids in town do you think live here illegally?” Just as frank as before, they looked at each other, thought about it and one finally said, “About a quarter,” to which the rest confirmed. While not a scientific study by any degree, the students’ anecdotal admonition is supported by data.

Racial Dot Map

Above is a racial dot map of my town. Here, the Mexican population went from around 5% in 1970 to around 50% according to the 2010 census. That’s a massive shift and I am not even talking about the cultural consequences. Add this to the ad-hoc survey of Mexican students acknowledged around 25% of their Mexican counterparts immigrated to Oklahoma illegally. A few have even very openly admitted to me personally their own illegal status.Further evidence comes from the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s website, which shows about a 1% increase in total enrollment annually since around 2009, which suddenly plummetted to around .15% following the election of President Trump and the reduction of illegal immigration which followed.

 When evidence suggests that 12.5% of your student population are children of illegal immigrants, as well as the impact that has to your native students, some conversations need to start happening, and they are going to be difficult, beginning with one of the primary methods schools get state funding.

Daily head counts are a major factor used to determine the needs of a district when requests for funding are made each year to the state. This isn’t measured by enrollments, but how many children are actually present in class on a daily basis. More heads mean more funding. As per state requirements, to be present you must be enrolled requiring proof of legal residence. This includes birth certificate, SSN, shot records, and proof of a valid home address within the district. This asks how it is possible for so many students to claim illegal status while the system seems to have mechanisms to prevent it. What seems apparent from the administrators I’ve spoken to is a system with holes. One such hole seems to center on the implausibly large number of Hispanic children who have recently immigrated, not from the Mexico, or even Texas, but via New Hampshire, among other oddities. Clearly, professional fraudulent behaviors are taking place that allows many children to pass enrollment.

The question is, what are the schools to do about it? Should the schools deny new students on suspicion? That could get a school on the news really fast, as it’s actually a violation of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Plyler v. Doe held that illegal immigrants do have the rights to state public education.

Held: A Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Furthermore, it states that school administrators aren’t obligated to enforce immigration law.

But does it mean that better integration with federal immigration agencies during the enrollment process is out of the question? No. In the way that an application to buy a gun involves a background check, what’s preventing applications for all new students from being automatically screened by state and federal authorities for irregularities? Such a system would aid investigators if they feel that investigation is warranted, such in cases where it is believed the parents are involved in far more illegal activity than simply living within the United States, so long as the student is allowed to enroll regardless.

The big problem, however, is that schools currently aren’t incentivized to lower the number of students. This isn’t because of some altruistic benevolence, but because of daily head counts. Reducing the number of children, no matter the reason, reduces the total funds allocated to the school by the state. In a cash-strapped Oklahoma, schools do not turn away students for purely financial reasons. It is always a poorly designed system that incentivizes one government to work against the goals of many others on account of funding to do so.

Second is that Oklahoma attracts many low-income immigrants because they find cheaper homes, a lower cost of living, availability of low skill labor, and a geography difficult for federal agencies to investigate illegal immigration activity. Combine this with the state’s other funding difficulties such as law enforcement, and you can see that any policing agencies are much more concerned with Oklahoma’s growing organized drug crime problems than on school enrollment. Little can be done about what makes Oklahoma fairly unique and attractive to many who are living in the state illegally, but we have to ask if we need to reconsider how we fund our schools and if daily head counts should be a primary driver of revenue.

The head-count system assumes certain things about the “normal/average child”. This assumes historical average variables such as family size, family income, local taxation, and predictable levels of special services to name a few. However, when a large enough proportion of students in a particular school, or even whole regions of the state, does not reflect such state norms then the systems built to fund only on raw numbers fall apart. A few examples:

Consider funding provided by locals districts. New sources of cheap labor drive business development and increase local spending, both of which mean an increase in taxes, but is the new business created enough to offset the costs to educate their children? Usually not, as the costs per student were designed to also include income taxes. When much of your income is illegally sourced and off the books, it’s rarely taxed. This is true both for the business and the employer side.

Next, the “normal costs” don’t normally factor in additional services immigrant children require to compete. This isn’t talking about the cultural ramifications or race, but economic realities and acknowledging the hardships of teaching to such extremes in demographics. Consider that almost every teacher I know has had to teach a new student who has never spoken a word of the English language. Do you remember the challenges around testing? Multiply that by an order of magnitude when you have multiple students who are ESL (English as a second language.) State funds are required for ESL (English as a Second Language) and ELL (English Language Learner) programs, and sometimes the districts must add even more. But a certified teacher must fill this role, which is almost impossible in many of the rural parts of the state. For perspective, after interviewing one local administrator, of the 556 students enrolled in her building, 149 rate ESL services. That’s roughly 30% of the students rating some form of ESL or ELL programs. These programs channel huge amounts of money to these children relative to what their native-born students, both American and Mexican-American get to achieve the same education. For comparison, one school district in Louisiana found that the additional costs incurred for educating came to approximately $4.6 to educate 533 illegal immigrant students and a 2011 study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform found illegal immigration’s fiscal burden on Oklahoma education to be around $245 million. Given all of this, and the extremes in demographic and economic inequalities leave systems built around statewide normalized metrics such as daily head counts unsuitable to determine the state funding a school should receive.

If we are having conversations about things that can be done, understanding the burden that illegal immigration has on Oklahoma education needs to be part of that conversation. Any system which incentivizes packing students into seats at all costs needs to be questioned, and this is especially true if the policy incentivizes schools to make decisions that don’t put the needs of American citizens first. We need policies that encourage schools to work with other government agencies to do what is best for Oklahoma students and future.

Photography for the Mystic Valley Charter Schools.

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Cutting Red Tape to Ease the Burden on Teachers

We’ve listed problems, but the hardest thing for anything to do is finding solutions. That’s why, no matter how bad it may get, I really don’t like to hate on elected officials too much. It’s much harder to make problems go away than it is to simply diagnose. That said, screaming for a raise isn’t the best and only solution. That money has to come from somewhere and it won’t solve all the problems with education. It might actually make much of it worse when the state start demanding their pound of flesh for half a billion dollars split some 40,000 ways, which would then be their right.

So let’s talk about solutions:

First, we need to realize that sometimes, the quest to be seen solving the problem, is the problem. As I’ve written about in other sections, Oklahoma has created a nightmare situation for teachers as it shows how little it trusts them. This is seen in the regulations requiring high-stress testing, not only on the student but teachers, and school, to the micromanagement of their state curriculum. Oklahoma education doesn’t fail because not enough is being done. Oklahoma education fails because too much is being done too often.

This is why deregulation needs to be an agenda item. It needs to be the first item because it is the most powerful means of making Oklahoma teachers more empowered to do well while costing the state nothing to implement. Given the costs of overseeing the programs already in place, those which it isn’t obvious to anyone does any good to further the goals of education, it may actually save money. Cutting that red tape on teachers is the simplest matter from a policy standpoint because it gives teachers what they really want, the freedom to reach for their own potential rather than be limited by the barriers of the state.

Deregulation also allows individual districts to tailor solutions to their individual needs as no two communities in Oklahoma are the same. At the same time, they’ll be experimenting with new methods, and when successful, those methods can be implemented throughout the state. It’s the argument of freedom over centralized governance. It says that individuals know better how to solve their own problems than do government bureaucrats in the Capitol. It’s fine to communicate a vision and even to hold those schools accountable to fail to meet expectations. It’s not fine, however, to see that some schools are failing, and in response, bind their hands so tightly that they can’t even have an independent thought that wasn’t mandated in the State Superintendent’s letter.

Deregulation requires the state actually putting trust in teachers, but at the same time, it requires that bad teachers be free to be let go. While it’s terrifying for many teachers struggling at the bottom, there are many teachers in Oklahoma who have long been a part of the problem but are currently protected from the suffering many new teachers experiences. We all know a few and know that they are demoralizing to our school cultures and damaging to our students’ future. They need to go to free up space for younger and more motivated teachers.

What would this look like? First of all, a promise to teachers in keeping with how President Trump implemented his deregulatory promises, vowing to cut two regulations for every new one that goes on the books. In truth, he was much closer to 10:1, and that freedom has seen many businesses prosper over the last year. Love him or hate him, that policy has been very good for the American economy, and a version of it needs to be implemented in Oklahoma, particularly in our education system.

Next, give teachers a break. I mean that in a very real and meaningful way. Let it come down from the state that they are going to relax the state standards, and take a good long, honest look at a comprehensive set of standards should be. Lay off on the constant reforms, but come up with one that can work for the state and let it be known that the next set of standards will be instituted no more than three years from some date and that no new standard changes will happen for a full ten years after. Give them that sense of security and then, given them ownership. Make the standards part of an open discussion where teachers, parents, experts, and lawmakers have input in the three-year evolving process.

Not only will this make teachers owners in the programs rather than servants to it, but it will allow them to prepare ahead of time for the changes that are coming, rather than have the rug pulled out from under them with some email from the state. Imagine what good teachers will be able to achieve knowing that the work they put in this year will be able to be used next year, and the year after that, evolving with them as they grow as teachers. And best of all, seven years after the standards have been changed, they’ll know the next three years are an opportunity to get it right, and they can have an even greater impact by making even better the standards they’ve mastered, raising their own bars.

And you know what else? Maybe cool it with all these stinking tests. The fact of the matter is that Oklahoma needs a reset. Schools need be allowed to lay off the testing. Teachers need to be free to say, “Jimmy’s not ready for Third Grade,” without that decision coming from the state. Teachers need to be free to teach and learn what works best for them with schools responsible for their own assessment. At least let this happen for a while, give the school cultures time to adjust and to shed the burden of thinking of themselves as miserable failures, and come up with plans to improve while a paradigm in Oklahoma education is being devised with a focused effort on creating a strategy that works.

I know… do nothing? Do less than nothing? That sounds crazy. I know, but here is the ugly truth, it can’t honestly be as bad as what we have now. Sometimes, doing less is doing more. Should all of this become a reality, that will help teachers not hate their lives so much, but won’t actually solve the budget problems. That’s going to require other solutions, but unleashing teachers from the burdens of doing the job, that should be our first step in fixing OK education now.


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Oklahoma Education Standards … A Recipe for Chaos

The testing really isn’t the worst of it. I know I compared standardized testing in the last section to a system that literally murders children who fail, but in all honesty, it isn’t the worst part of being an Oklahoma teacher. There is a reason that the tests are so impossible to navigate beyond just the weight applied to them. It isn’t even the test themselves, but that the state standards they are based upon are always changing.

In Oklahoma, the tests are aligned to what is called the OAS or Oklahoma Academic Standards. Rather, they are the revised OAS. I say “revised” because this post will probably be out of date in a few months because the powers that be in Oklahoma have changed the standards numerous times in the last 5 years. Two years ago it was unironically called the PASS skills, and before that, we were on Common Core. You see, the standards on which teachers are expected to teach are revised nearly every single year.

In practice, this means that a teacher who has her written lesson plan, one which she built and designed over a period of years and which she has evolved to be a solid tool for guiding her students’ educational progression throughout the year, now must be completely rewritten because it doesn’t align to the new methods prescribed by Oklahoma legislatures. The standards are killer because it effectively limits what you can teach, as almost nothing in the way of books, assignments, and classroom materials aligns with them. This forces teachers to throw out everything they used the year before and start from scratch. Remember what I said about the difficulty printing companies had to keep up with our changing standards? And something so sad it’s funny… if you actually work in a school that can afford books you have to throw them out too. If it doesn’t align with Oklahoma Education Standards, it’s gone because they absolutely won’t align to whatever new standards were cooked up in Oklahoma City by non-educators at the behest of numerous and conflicting political interest groups.

I liken it to a something my mother, a career nurse of over 30 years, says of others in the profession. “You see some nurses who have been nursing for 30 years, and you see some that have been 1st-year nurses 30 times.” She was speaking to the individual ability of some nurses to never surpass their basic capabilities and act upon raw education they’ve been given. They aren’t able to apply experience, pioneer new methods, to act on their own initiative, to solve problems, or become a resource to new members because their mentalities are trapped at that point of a first year. Nearly every industry mirrors this process, but ask yourself what your industry would be like if nearly every single year, the entire best practices manual for how things that work are done is thrown out. That’s Oklahoma, and what it leaves us with an entire culture with nothing but first-year teachers. This includes excellent master level educators who personify that picture of a 30-year teacher, but who have had to abandon tried and true methods of instruction because they do not align to whatever new state standard they’ve been forced to uphold.

I want you to imagine yourself as a teacher. You go to work every day, but then you work hours every night to prepare for next week too. This isn’t to mention the grading and other thankless necessities of the job, but we will just focus on the lesson plans. It would be nice if you could use that time you invested, hours out of every week, into next year, right? If that were the case, you would have a difficult time of it that first year, but it would be better the next year. Where last year you stayed afloat, this year you could be improving the lessons that flopped, and the next year, even more. Even better, a first-year teacher could be given a simple folder from their master level teacher on a thumb drive that has the entire year’s worth of lesson plans, complete with additional resources, links, activities, and everything else that they have been refining for decades. She smiles and says, “You can use this, and trust me, it will save your life.” In either case, even if you live in a district that can’t buy books on their own, that process will be refined to finally give teachers the time to improve their course of studies. In time, you could you spend extra time and energy (yes, teachers used to have that) to take on a mastery, such as investing in your own understanding topics such as how poverty affects education or neurological development in the brains of children. The free time of our teachers is where they become masters of the craft. It’s where new methods and mastery is made. It’s why the wisdom and experience of a 30-year teacher are more valuable than the energy and idealism of a 1st-year. But is that how things work in Oklahoma?


Instead, you start over every time there is a major set of reforms. In my wife’s five years as an elementary school teacher, they have reformed the standards three times. Remember, we’re asking a 22-year-old new teacher currently building a textbook from scratch from activities she found on Pinterest or paid for herself online, to throw it all away next year! All the nights she’s put into making her own curriculum… gone. If you don’t work in education, you don’t have that at your job. You get to refine your processes year to year and develop best practices that make sailing the ship a breeze. At some companies that refined process is itself a strategic advantage so valuable it’s even patented. Not for Oklahoma teachers. Here, everyone is a first-year teacher, even if they have been teaching for decades.

This creates a chaotic work environment. Hell, it creates a terrible life. Look, I know a lot of teachers who would be happy to work for the salary we get. Expenses in Oklahoma are low. It’s possible to have a higher quality of life here with less pay. But it isn’t worth it to have low pay and a chaotic life. Most new teachers wash out, which is criminal as most are fine teachers, but can’t handle the overwhelming nature of bureaucratic mess they have to deal with and an endless cycling workload. So they either become refugees in Texas or Arkansas or do like a friend of mine… who sells coffee.

But why does this keep happening?

Because Oklahoma voters are pissed that kids are failing. They are the parents. They have a right to be. But the voters don’t understand the problem from the teacher’s perspective. They only see the examples of the really terrible teachers who have been milking the system for decades while failing to education juxtaposed with the low scores and they think nothing is being done. To appease the voters, the most politically expedient thing to do is issue some set of new standards. Apparently, people assume the old standards aren’t working, when really the teachers haven’t had the time needed to adapt to them. Lawmakers usually understand this, but telling the teachers to do better by “raising the bar” justifies their paycheck and their power they’ve been given. Nevermind that they’ve raised nothing, but simply placed a new bar painted different and told the teachers that to successfully jump it, they must do so with bound feet and while running backward.

It isn’t that we don’t have a need for some standards, but that lawmakers don’t respect the pain standard reforms cause, and that too much of it does far more harm than leaving teachers alone to solve problems themselves. You can’t change the way they fundamentally do their job every year and expect things to get better. Given the problems teachers have, they would need at least five years to create and share new modes of doing their job, maybe a minimum of three, but pulling the rug out from under out teachers year after year is a recipe for chaos in the lives of our teachers that explains far more of their failure than that no one in Oklahoma City held them to any standards at all.

This is part of a series on Education in Oklahoma:

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Teaching to the Test

Every educator know the temptation to “teach to the test”. It refers to the annual standardized tests which the state mandates almost all children must take to know which of their teachers are to be thrown in the chokie. By this, I mean that depending on the tests, teachers could lose their jobs, and if there is a particularly egregious screw up with the way the testing was administered, lose their license. Teachers are terrified during Testing Season not just for themselves, but for their kids and their schools. For students, failure can mean being held back or labeled “the stupid one”.

One has to question the rationality in all of this. One area principal made a very good point that it is insane that we judge a year’s worth of collective work of both a child and his teacher based on the performance on a single day, a day when they may be in near panic, when their dog could have been hit by a bus, their grandmother may have died, they could be sick, or maybe they just don’t do well on tests. This is not to mention that Testing Season itself amounts to a huge block of educational time including reviews and regular benchmark testing… time where they aren’t being taught actual classroom material, but practicing to look good for the state.

There’s a reason for this, of course, as the schools face real consequences for failure. Every year there is a school A-F report card and testing is a huge part of it. If too many kids fail, and if it becomes a pattern, the school can face punitive budget cuts or be shut down. That being the case, it needs to be said that it’s impossible to find two identical schools with the same balance of needs, same population, same wealth distribution, same ethnic diversity dynamic, or the same anything. But it’s okay to stack the test scores of one school against the others as if that determines the value of their teachers? This matters in vastly recessed parts of the state where the local tax base does little to supplement state funds. Then throw in the places with high percentages of kids needing ESL or ELL services, which often, unfortunately, stack on poorer communities. Given all this disparity, you think you are going to get scores on par with the rest of the state. But if a school is graded as an F on the school report card it should be shut down? That would be like killing off all the kids who don’t pass, an idea so terrifying, Hollywood literally made a movie about it called The Thinning.

Logan Paul Shares Trailer for YouTube Red Thriller 'The ...

That’s what it feels like for many poor schools. You have it hard? Tough. Pass or get closed and any poor teacher associated with you is marked as untouchable for the rest of her career.

For this reason, the schools have adapted by trying to make the single most stressful week of a kid’s year, as well as their own, into a circus with all sorts of asinine behavior from dressing up, decorating the halls, and matching T-shirts reading some silly affirmation like “Rock the Test”. Why engage in this utter nonsense and a complete waste of time? Because literally so much is riding on it, and while everyone is trying to pretend like they are having fun and to be relaxed, everyone is scared out of their minds.

It should surprise no one teachers do that ugly thing no one is allowed to admit to.

Teachers teach to the test.

It’s a fact. Let’s just own it, accept it, and deal with this horrible truth. Teachers teach to the test and screw anyone for judging them.

What does this mean?

It means that teachers don’t have the liberty to teach so that your kids understand the material. They teach so that they don’t get fired for having lost test scores.

Fine, okay. We have to somehow ensure that some standards are met. Obviously, we can’t have teachers telling kids that magical crystals govern the universe in accordance with the amount of positive energy you channel into them, right? But at what point did we cross a line from productive assessment to damaging our students? I’m not sure, but I will venture a guess that schools being so insecure in their teachers that they interrupt actual classroom time with endless benchmarks is probably counterproductive to education. Secondly, whoever allowed a system to evolve where school counselor dresses like a flipping taco so that the kids can relax to take a stupid test is someone who needs to be duct taped to a wall, and have the collected volume of the state tests thrown at them like a Bronze-Aged stoning. Test day Taco Teacher is where we know we crossed the line.

So how do teachers handle this? One of a few ways:

First, they can place insane amounts of stress on children to perform, not that there is anything in it for the kids because rewarding positive outcomes is strictly forbidden. I’m not being facetious, you’re literally not allowed to reward kids for doing well on the tests because rich schools can incentivize more. It’s fairer, but all that is left for kids is the negative consequences of failure. Not a good motivator.  Then make all this happen on a day when you get kids ripped from their classrooms into totally foreign environments where the teachers walk around like prison guards trying to telepathically relay the answers to their children. Couple this with telling them to relax and that everything will be okay, while teachers subconsciously communicate to them that if they fail the teacher’s life will be over, their lives will be over, the school’s life will be over, and the fall of the American Republic will soon be neigh, and no matter what you do, kids will be stressed to the point of breaking.

Hence Taco Teacher.

Some kids aren’t bothered, but then there are the others. The others are the kids who will freak out, have a panic attack, or who simply don’t care and are willing to fail to see the world burn. Yeah, there are monsters, but the problem is that there enough of these second two groups to completely break the average. Awesome.

Then there is the second option: Cheat. Look, you make the stakes high enough and the situation desperate enough, people are going to cheat.  You tell someone that their job and the food in their kid’s bellies comes down to the performance of 60 kids they have only had access to for about 1 hour a day for about 100 days before the testing season starts… Teachers are human and some will take the low road.

Or you have what most educators actually do. They learn about the test. Over the years, they stop teaching what is best to create well-educated students ready to tackle life’s challenges, and they teach to a test so that they can look like superstars and know they will be invited back next year.

I’ll leave it at this. If teachers, students, and schools got to write an A-F test for the Oklahoma State Board of Education, the “F” wouldn’t just stand for “failed.”

Frustrated Teacher

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The Myth of Classroom Tablets

But what about one-to-one technology? (That’s teacher parlance for tablets.)

As you can imagine, giving every student a tablet (as in one-to-one) is a massive initial investment. At least then you have them. Well, that’s still not “problem solved.” My last section described just how important textbooks are for educators.  At this point, there is no complete replacement for what textbooks offered: one complete program that covers an entire year’s worth of material (even if the standards change… again), along with activities for practice, and assessment materials that follow a clear progression through the academic year. Sorry, there’s just no app for that.

What we have instead are poorly integrated multimedia programs and video games disguised as learning aides disguised as video games (not a typo.) The games are billed as helping with conceptual skills and fundamentals, but any of those that actually do… no one actually plays. The multimedia is usually a long series of videos and reading material that the kids can usually click through in 10 minutes what should take them a few hours to complete. They have clever visuals and a few quizzes but are ultimately inferior because they aren’t made with the same depth and detail as the books, as many are produced at breakneck paces by software startups employing five engineers and zero educators. Add in the fact that one of the last things Oklahoma educators get for programs like this is training in implementation, particularly with advanced programs. Sure, the administrators make sure you know how to check kids in, but as far as actually working with the programs that help you teach… eh.

Where we have successes usually comes from the fact that technology-based learning offers tools older methods don’t. For example, if you’re able to have all your work done on tablets, the grading can be done automatically. For teachers who spend in excess of four hours a week grading worksheets this is a godsend. Also getting instant knowledge of who is understanding the material and who isn’t is an invaluable tool to an educator. Likewise, there also exists excellent communication tools making it easier for parents and teachers to work together. Those are great (Classroom Dojo FTW!), but in all honesty, a teacher can also use Classroom Dojo with just her phone, so the one-to-one isn’t necessarily part of that equation.

So, discounting the communication technology, the grading does very little if it isn’t part of a holistically integrated lesson plan. For most teachers, this is where one-to-one fails.

What this translates to is Mr. Jones or Miss Smith now with access to the power technology, tech that cost the Oklahoma taxpayer one of the few pretty pennies they still had. They have no training in how to use it but had two days during in-service to figure it and design their entire year’s worth of education around along with the other teachers equally as lost as they are. So when you think about the costs of these massive outlays to it shouldn’t surprise you when the lesson ends up being, “Go to this YouTube video then take the quiz in Kahoots I spent an hour making last night.”

Given that most schools don’t have the pull that major school districts do, (such as the Los Angeles Independent School District) they don’t have the resources to court companies willing to tailor education suites just for them. Of course, even with LA, that crashed and burned. This is why for all but a few, one-to-one technology does not replace textbooks unless the teachers build a curriculum from scratch… again… but this time digitally. This means teachers have the burden of not only teaching, but also creating all curriculum, which they may or may not have the resources to act upon, which is already impossible, but whatever. Add into that the need to develop technology skills that would make them way, way more employable in other industries…

Well, at least this time they won’t need paper.

Next up… those godforsaken tests!

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