The time is now for bold leadership to reform Oklahoma education.
It’s not just about teacher pay, or consolidation, or test scores. These are only a few of the elements of Oklahoma’s most pressing challenge — how to significantly elevate the quality of K-12 education in Oklahoma.
The good news is that we currently enjoy the alignment of a few favorable stars to begin meeting that challenge. We have a governor with two years left in her final term who has declared education improvement as a high priority. We have a legislative session starting, with a large contingent of new faces, so fresh thinking on education reform is possible. We also have the benefit of numerous examples of how other states have addressed similar education issues. In short, it’s game time for education reform in Oklahoma, and bold leadership is the most essential element of success. Here’s a suggested approach.
First, and of immediate need, pass a teacher pay raise bill early in the upcoming legislative session, before the theatrics of filling the deficit hole eat up the entire session. Numerous suggestions for funding the pay raise have been proposed. Legislators and the governor need to get it done.
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To address true reform, the governor ought to take the lead by forming an Education Commission, comprised of qualified leaders from several backgrounds who have open minds to fundamentally reforming the existing system. Turf protectors need not apply.
Two overriding principles should guide the commission’s important work: (1) Recommended reforms should honor the principle of subsidiarity by placing as much of the school governance structure as close to local communities as possible, with centralized decision-making applied only where local decision-making is impractical or inappropriate, and (2) the commission ought to commit to an “everything-is-on-the-table” approach, including such critical fundamental issues as:
• Undertaking a critical review of how our K-12 system is funded, with its heavy emphasis on state-appropriated funds versus the more millage- and ad valorem-based funding systems common in most other states.
• Exploring how a blend of school choice alternatives (vouchers, Education Savings Accounts, charters, tax credit scholarships) can complement and reinvigorate our traditional public school system. Experiences in other states show school choice and traditional public school systems cannot only coexist, but flourish together. Open-minded dialogue, please.
• Recommend the appropriate balance between administrative costs and classroom expenditures, perhaps using a “65 percent plan” and/or annually passing two separate appropriation bills in the Legislature to fund administrative needs and classroom needs.
• Recommend how teacher compensation and effectiveness can be improved, including incentive compensation for effective teachers and the ability to replace ineffective teachers.
• Assess and recommend how rigorous academic curricula can appropriately be applied in classrooms, so the minds and achievements of students at various levels can be stretched to reach their full potentials.
• Establish appropriate metrics for measuring outcomes, while avoiding “over-testing” or “teaching for test results.”
The list most assuredly needs to be expanded, but it does not need to be contracted.
The point is Oklahoma’s K-12 education system needs a complete re-do. If the Education Commission does its job well and leaders step up, Oklahoma has a chance to elevate our K-12 education trajectory. If the process degenerates into turf-based warring, Oklahoma and its children lose, as do all of us who live and work here.
What is essential is for state leaders to rise above the politics, historical mindsets, and band aid reform attempts of the past, demonstrate a willingness to consider the viewpoints of others, and embrace a “way forward plan” that can become a reality. It’s not about the education community, the think tanks, the politicians, the turf protectors. It’s about our children, and about our collective responsibility to do our duty as our children’s providers. It will require heretofore unseen leadership. Now is the time.
Robert Sullivan is a Tulsa oil and gas producer who has served as chairman of five elementary and high school boards over the past 40 years, and as a member of two university boards. He is a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by board members appear in this space each week.