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?”