By Katrina Crumbacher
All Samantha Richards wants is what’s best for her son. She wants him to be safe, to do what is right and to have a good education.
While her 8-month-old is still much too young for pre-K, she knows that her son’s future is not a matter to be taken lightly.
“I need to live in a good area that has a good school, so wherever I live, it has to be based around the education,” Richards said. “I already know that Moore has really good schools. I also heard about Yukon and Piedmont, so I like those.”
Education has been a hot button issue in Oklahoma for decades and was a major source of contention in Oklahoma’s race for governor in 2022.
Gov. Kevin Stitt touted the “largest investment in education and teachers in the history of our state” as part of his re-election campaign, yet Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding is still among the lowest in the nation.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has been Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction for eight years, yet under her watch, Oklahoma’s education system has dropped from 48th to 49th in the nation.
When Hofmeister started her tenure as the state’s leading education official in 2015, Oklahoma was ranked 48th. Four years later and a brand-new governor to boot, the state dropped to 49th.
“Every time we think about what we’re going to do for the future of this state, we think about our kids,” Hofmeister said in a debate. “Oklahoma is woefully prepared for the future in education because we do not have the people on the team to meet the needs of students.”
Teacher shortages have plagued Oklahoma for more than a decade, and legislators and education officials alike have struggled to fix the problem. In the ongoing effort to combat the issue, the Oklahoma Board of Education recently voted to give teachers a $5,000 pay raise as part of their 2024 budget proposal.
“We’ve significantly raised teacher pay in recent years, but so did our neighboring states with whom we are competing,” Hofmeister said in a press release. “In the midst of an unprecedented and worsening teacher shortage, it is imperative we look for long-term solutions to show that Oklahoma values and respects its teachers.”
Though Oklahoma is dealing with its share of teacher shortages, the nation as a whole is struggling when it comes to education.
The National Center for Education Statistics recently reported 53% of public schools felt understaffed entering the 2022-23 school year. The most understaffed positions in those schools were special education teachers and transportation staff.
“When I first stepped into office, I asked for competitive pay to attract teachers, and we got that after three years,” Hofmeister said. “But what we realized too is there needs to be more people on the teams—school counselors, reading specialists, paraprofessionals. We are losing those people to other states and other industries.”
As outlined in Oklahoma’s $9.7 billion budget for 2023, almost $3.2 billion is dedicated to the funding of common education. In comparison, New Jersey’s education system is currently ranked first in the nation, and they have dedicated $18.6 billion to common education funding in their 2023 budget.
New Jersey spends Oklahoma’s state budget twice over on common education alone. Oklahoma can’t even begin to compete with a state whose revenue exceeds Oklahoma’s four times over.
“Education is something that everybody—that’s what we want for our kids,” Stitt said. “We can’t keep doing the same things we’ve done for the last eight years.”
In an effort to improve the quality of education received at Oklahoma public schools, Stitt supported Senate Bill 1647, which would have allowed parents more freedom in school choice. However, the bill failed to pass in the Senate after a majority voted nay on the measure.
Authored by Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the “Oklahoma Empowerment Act” was designed to take the public funds that would have been spent on a child’s education at a public school and reallocate them to school, etc. The bill would have also allowed for other education-related expenses, such as tutoring and transportation.
“It allows for parents to be in charge of their kids’ education,” Treat said in a committee meeting. “When you have competition, I absolutely, in my heart of hearts, in the core of who I am, believe that public education will get stronger not weaker, and that is my aim.”
Treat said he believes public schools have a monopoly on public dollars and that mediocrity has been accepted far too often.
“We need more competition, not less competition,” he said. “Competition drives excellence, and if you’re not competing for those dollars, there’s not the same drive for excellence in my opinion.”
A second-generation public school teacher, Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, opposed the bill and was concerned with its potential impact on rural communities.
“I agree that parents have an incredible role in the education of their children, but what I’m most concerned about with this particular approach is that the largest expense in our public school investment right now is in teachers,” she said. “What is going to happen to main street rural Oklahoma where the best jobs in the town are in education, where folks have served their community for generations?”
Rural communities weren’t her only concern. The state has struggled with a lack of appropriate oversight in the past.
“I don’t see the accountability,” she said. “I think it’s fraught with unintended consequences, and I don’t know how we can be honest in answering our constituents, the taxpayers, that we’ve done our diligence ensuring that the money is invested wisely.”
One of the largest failures in governmental oversight in recent years, the ClassWallet disaster still looms over Oklahoma like ash over a volcano. Though the lava no longer flows, the ash can be seen for miles.
With few safeguards and little-to-no oversight, ClassWallet was awarded a contract to distribute $18 million in federal pandemic relief grants in August 2020. The grants were designed to aid Oklahoma families in the purchase of educational supplies and help out private school families through vouchers.
Through a combined investigation by The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch, records showed families used the grants to purchase a wide swath of non-educational items, such as TVs, Christmas trees, barbeque grills and smartphones.
When the “Oklahoma Empowerment Act” was introduced, Treat attempted to reassure legislators by smoothing over accountability concerns.
“This does not open up any new avenues for waste, fraud and abuse,” he said. “We’re sinners by nature, and there’s going to be people who take advantage of systems, whether they be public systems, whether they be private systems. We’re not going to stop that, but we are going to have safeguards in here that make sure people are held to account if they do abuse the taxpayer dollars.”
The biggest pushback against the “Oklahoma Empowerment Act” has come from Hofmeister, claiming the bill to be a “rural school killer.” Using it as a rallying cry, she has toured rural communities to garner support.
“Here’s the problem: this governor has a school voucher scheme that is a rural school killer,” she said. “You kill the school. You kill the community.”
How much public schools receive in state aid is determined by Oklahoma’s school funding formula, which utilizes a weighted pupil system. Students are assigned a number that represents how difficult they may be to teach. The higher the number, the more difficulties facing students, the more expensive they are to teach.
The school funding formula takes the weighted sum of public school students and the funding received from local communities in consideration to ensure that no school receives too much.
Every student that leaves public school for private school, homeschool, etc. decreases the state aid those public schools receive.
Hofmeister argues that with the passing of private school vouchers and similar programs, too many students would leave rural public schools in favor of private schools or homeschool. With the potential mass exodus of students, she argues that rural schools will fail to stay appropriately funded and will close.
“If we’re going to look long term, we’ve got to support our kids,” she said. “They’ve got to have a competitive education. We can’t dismantle public education, which is going to happen under the governor’s watch.”
However, most rural communities do not have the luxury of private schools in the area. The National Center for Education Statistics reports there are nearly 2,000 schools serving students K-12 in Oklahoma, and only 135 are considered private.
For a small town like Cashion, the nearest private school is 17 miles away in Guthrie. Even if students were pulled out of the Cashion public school system in favor of an alternative, Superintendent Leon Ashlock of Cashion Public Schools said they wouldn’t be very negatively impacted.
“I don’t think the bill would harm Cashion, in particular,” he said. “I think we would be OK, but as far as a large majority of the schools in the state, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Cashion Public Schools is indeed an outlier. In terms of funding, Cashion Public Schools barely qualifies for state aid as it is. For the 2022-23 school year, CPS received $3.7 million from local revenue sources, and only 1.1% of their funding came from state aid.
However, school districts like Peggs in Cherokee County or Pleasant Grove in Pottawatomie County receive very little locally. State aid makes up more than 80% of their funding.
“The vast majority of the schools in the state are on that state funding formula,” Ashlock said. “Just because it doesn’t hurt us immensely, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt anybody else.”
Ashlock said he didn’t see the need for the state to fund the choice to attend private schools.
“If somebody wants to go to a private school, it’s their choice to go to a private school,” he said. “I don’t really know that there’s a giant need for the state to have vouchers.”
Instead of thinking solely on how a school voucher-like system would affect public schools, Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremont, said that students should be the primary concern.
“The emails you get from time to time use phrases like ‘public schools will be hurt,’” he said. “Why is that same person not putting forth that students will be hurt? Because that’s what moms and dads are seeing. Moms and dads see that first. The kid should be the priority. The student should be the priority, not the system that has long been in existence.”
Samantha Richards said she’s thought about sending her son, Brodie, to a private school and would support a school voucher-like program. “I feel like that would give more kids an opportunity for a better education even if they couldn’t afford it,” she said.
When Richards was in high school, she received an offer to attend a private high school, but she turned it down.
“For high school, I did vocational college to be a cosmetologist, so when I graduated high school, I also graduated with my license,” she said. “The reason I chose not to go to private school is I wanted to do that college thing in high school. They didn’t offer that at the private school I was going to go to, so I’m glad I went to a public school.”
The prevalence of public school shootings in recent years also has Richards concerned, and it’s this pervading thought that keeps her wondering, “Would a private school be better?”
By Grace Woodard, Aaron Dawes and Braydon Buzzard
Submitted by Prof. Steve Carano’s weather forecasting class
Be prepared to enjoy the holiday season with favorable winter weather conditions.
The 2022 Oklahoma winter will likely have above average temperatures with slightly above average snowfall amounts. These weather conditions will likely align with those of the past two winters. These conditions are influenced and controlled by various global factors including ocean currents and temperatures, wind patterns and solar radiation.
The wind patterns present describe the placement of the “rivers of air” above our heads, the subtropical and polar jet streams. Wherever the subtropical jet stream is positioned will bring in moisture for the specified area. The placement of the polar jet stream will bring dry conditions to the area affected. The behavior of ocean temperatures, or patterns, have three main categories: El Niño, La Niña and neutral.
El Niño patterns are defined by warmer temperatures causing cooler and wetter conditions in the southern United States and warm and dry conditions in the northern United States. La Niña is defined by colder temperatures creating warm and dry conditions in the southern United States and cold and wet conditions in the northern United States. “Neutral” means the weather pattern in place will reflect average conditions for most or all of the year. The combination of these factors can lead to a vastly different winter than the previous year.
Though 2020 was not in a La Niña pattern for the entire year, the United States is currently in a “triple dip” La Niña pattern for 2022, meaning La Niña has affected North America for three consecutive years. This means that the subtropical jet stream is bringing moisture and cold conditions in the northern United States, while the southern United States is being affected by the polar jet stream leading to dry and warm conditions. For Oklahoma, this means dry winter conditions but warmer winter temperatures.
Average temperatures, specifically for Oklahoma City, typically range from the high 30s to low 40s. From 2000-2021, the average snowfall for Oklahoma City was 8.1 inches and was the same for the La Niña years within the same timeframe. The average snowfall was higher when La Niña lasts all year as opposed to when it lasted only during the winter months. For example, the average snowfall from 2000-2021 was 11.4 inches when only looking at year-long La Niña patterns. This leads to the prediction that the winter of 2022, as this year has been a year-long La Niña pattern, will have slightly above average snowfalls.
A mural at the Latino Community Development Agency in downtown Oklahoma City. (Photo by Katrina Crumbacher)
By Katrina Crumbacher and Valerie Scott
Being a non-bilingual Spanish speaker in Oklahoma is not easy. From health care to banking to schools, to be a Spanish speaker and not be bilingual in Oklahoma is to be marginalized.
Imagine being in critical condition, attempting to explain your symptoms to a medical professional, but try as you might, the doctor cannot understand the words you are speaking. Imagine needing to apply for a mortgage, but there are no Spanish-speaking bankers in the area.
For many, they don’t have to imagine. For many, this is an everyday struggle.
“Not everyone gets the same level of care,” said Rita Mild, dean of Rose State’s Health Sciences division. “What I’ve witnessed a lot is if you don’t speak the language around that’s native, we say it’s English, it’s somehow seen as a decrease in intellect, which is just not true.”
The Hispanic and Latino communities make up some of the fastest-growing ethnic populations in Oklahoma, yet they are at a disadvantage when receiving health care in Oklahoma.
“One of the things that has always driven me crazy is when people are like ‘Well, they’re here. Why don’t they know English,’” she said. “They are passively in a place that’s new to them. I mean think about the bravery it takes to leave everything that you know and come to another place and then try to navigate this crazy world.”
The courage it takes to leave your home country for an unfamiliar one is often overlooked.
“I think about our students who are English as a second language,” she said. “I can’t imagine learning science in my non-native language, so I think there needs to be more emphasis on the humanity that people have. These are people who are impressive.”
Recent studies have shown Hispanic adults are less likely to have employer-sponsored health coverage due to higher rates of employment in low-wage jobs, such as line cooks, housekeepers and cashiers, etc.
Almost 24% of Hispanic adults have no source of health care other than an emergency room. In comparison, only 12% of white adults can say the same, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study shows.
“If you don’t have health insurance, if you’re only going for emergency treatment, you’re not used to going in for routine cleanings and checkups,” said Esmeralda Ornelas, a dental assisting professor at Rose State College. “We only went to the doctor when we were sick. It was never established that we go to the doctor so we don’t get sick.”
A lack of health insurance means paying out of pocket for health care, which is often too expensive, even for regular checkups.
“Everyone in my family has health problems. My dad has diabetes. My paternal grandfather has congestive heart failure. I don’t have my maternal or paternal grandmother anymore,” she said. “My dad is a Type 2 diabetic. He drinks a lot of beer, eats a lot of red meat, has a major sweet tooth, eats sweets all the time, and never feels good. He’ll say, ‘I need to go see my doctor.’ He never goes.”
The American Diabetes Association reports the Hispanic community is at a 66% greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than non-Hispanic white people. A recent Pew Research Center study shows that just under half of Hispanic adults say they have a close friend or family member who needs a Spanish-speaking health care provider or translator.
“They use anybody, a friend, a sibling or a child to come translate for you, and that is completely unethical,” said Dr. Yuliana Reyes, director of health at the Latino Community Development Agency. “You should not have somebody else translate for you that is not a translator, a professional interpreter, because professional interpreters are required by law to say exactly what the doctor says.”
In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order titled “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency.” The order mandates federal agencies to evaluate their provided services, recognize the needs of those with limited English and implement a successful system for those individuals in need. The order also requires federal agencies to ensure that beneficiaries of federal financial assistance supply sufficient access to LEP applicants.
Essentially, all federally funded institutions are legally bound to provide access to a translator for non-English speakers. Most hospitals receive federal funding and must provide access to a translator. Big-name hospitals, such as INTEGRIS Health, Mercy Hospital and SSM Health St. Anthony, provide access to translators. While a hired translator is not always on-site, the facilities will offer an over-the-phone interpreter.
For those who face financial difficulties, most attempt to avoid hospital bills and instead resort to cheaper health care alternatives, such as Urgent Care Clinics and Health Express Centers.
(Photo by Katrina Crumbacher)
Smaller institutions like these are not legally bound to offer translation services like federally funded hospitals.
Not being bilingual in a society that’s tailored to English affects every aspect of life. Most public information is in English, which leads to less information available for those who only speak Spanish. The federal Office of Minority Health reports that nearly one-third of Latinos are not fluent in English, and the pandemic only exacerbated the health care challenges facing the Hispanic and Latino communities.
During the pandemic, Reyes said she watched the televised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention press conferences. She watched the conferences first in English then in Spanish, but what the Spanish translators were saying didn’t match what was being said in English.
“The Hispanic community, especially in Oklahoma City, didn’t know who to listen to,” she said. “They listened to their friends and families back home. There was so much false information going around everywhere, worldwide.”
Beyond health care, language barriers continually challenge social services, such as public safety institutions and schools. Lawmakers like Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, and Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, have seen what it’s like firsthand.
“I was in the fire department for 25 years,” said Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa. “We actually ended up having to have interpreters. When we went on a medical call or they would be in transport to the hospital, etc., there was a problem because the people who were there to help couldn’t communicate.”
Staff were forced to rely on other members of the department to translate while also having to focus on the life-saving tasks at hand. “We recruited people that would understand, and they got compensated for being bilingual,” Matthews said.
Schools also face the language barrier for students, parents and teachers. Classrooms revolve heavily around communication. If a child can’t understand the counselors, teachers or students around them, they can’t be expected to learn at the same pace as their peers.
“When I was a school counselor at Adams Elementary, we would have child mental health issues,” said Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman. “At least two times I know of involved a child whose parents did not speak English.”
The miscommunication that comes with a lack of translation puts a hold on children who cannot be understood when voicing their needs.
“Basically, as a parent, you’re trying to say, ‘Look, my kid really needs help now,” she said. “If you have a language barrier, you might say, ‘My kid is upset. He’s crying.’ Then the person who’s taking them on would say, ‘Well, there’s lots of kids that are upset and crying in the world.”
Several employees are expected to play the role of translator while also being responsible for completing their own work. Along with miscommunication when translating, professional translators are required by law to interpret each word to the best of their ability. For someone who is not a trained interpreter, several key points in conversation can and often get lost in translation.
“Often you’ll see in schools, ‘You speak Spanish. Come here!” Boren said. “In our school, they pulled English language learner teachers to come interpret at the front desk if the parent walked in and needed help, so they pulled them out of the classroom.”
This can easily lead to a slip in the school environment when teachers are pulled away from their classrooms and are heavily relied on to translate.
“They could spend a good 50% of their day just answering questions on the phone for parents about lunch, or when’s the meeting and they weren’t doing instruction for their ELL kids,” she said.
These key employees are stretched thin by being the only reliable source of communication for non-English speaking customers, students or patients. Especially when these key bilingual workers are not appropriately compensated for their extra workload.
The Apple Store at Penn Square Mall recently approved a move to unionize and cited a lack of multilingual speakers in store as one of many concerns, an Oklahoma City television station reported.
As one of only two Apple stores in the state, the store faces an overwhelming level of storefront traffic. As one of only a few multilingual employees in the store, union organizer Kevin Herrera is stretched thin ensuring Spanish-speaking customers have someone who can understand them.
“I, as a bilingual speaker, want to give that part of Apple to our community so they can have the same experience as our English speakers,” he said. “When it was Mother’s Day, I had a line of one hour and a half, people waiting to speak to me because I was the only bilingual speaker in the store at the time.”
Being a non-bilingual Spanish speaker in Oklahoma is not easy, and those who are bilingual end up overworked and underpaid.