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Oklahoma superintendent unveils budget proposal, as Tulsa Public Schools gives progress update

 The state board of education convenes for its September 2023 meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
The state board of education convenes for its September 2023 meeting.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters unveiled his upcoming budget proposal, emergency rule change and proposed accreditation standards change at Thursday’s monthly State Board of Education meeting.

Tulsa Public Schools also presented its plan of improvement to the board.

Walters’ budget proposal is just that — a proposal. The legislature is ultimately in control of deciding how much money goes where, and is not obligated to adhere to Walters’ wishlist.

Walters pitched the proposal as fiscally responsible, given this last legislative session’s record new funding for education. In the meeting, Walters said next year, the department is asking for $47 million less.

But as first reported by Oklahoma Watch, the breakdown is a little more complicated. This year’s education package included a one-time payment of $150 million for a three-year school resource officer pilot program and a one-time payment of $10 million for literacy resources. Because those one-time payments are excluded from this year’s budget, it gave the agency $160 million of financial wiggle room from the previous year.

When excluding those one-time expenses, Walters’ proposal is actually $112.9 million larger.

So what would Oklahomans get for their money?

Back to Basics and other big budget items

Walters’ “Back to Basics” plan would cost $60.5 million, and much of that would go directly to teachers.

“Our proposal here is to focus on free market principles that we know lead to success in education to ensure that our kids have the skills needed to be successful,” Walters said.

Here’s how the money breaks down:

  • Focus on reading: $38.3 million
    • “Growth” bonuses to reward teachers for better student outcomes: $16 million
    • Tutoring: $10 million
    • Training: $7.8 million
    • Screening and intervention: $4.5 million
  • Focus on math and science: $11.4 million
    • “Growth” bonuses: $6 million
    • Tutoring: $5 million
    • Training: $400,000
  • Focus on civics: $800,000
    • Civics training and education: $500,000
    • Paid professional development: $300,000

Walters touts Back to Basics as having the “most aggressive tutoring plan for students that are behind in reading and math in the country.
“No state has ever done a tutoring program that has its basis in growth bonuses,” Walters said. “This will drive our conversations, our effort, our resources to outcomes. Free market principles work. They work in education as well. It is time we reward the best and brightest teachers and tutors.”

Other funding increases include:

  • $4.8 million for increased cost of student assessments
  • $2.4 million for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program, which mails books to young children

Funding cuts include:

  • Eliminating state funding ($2 million) for the Imagine Math and Imagine Language and Literacy online programs
  • Eliminating funding for Teach for America ($2 million), which places nontraditional teachers from backgrounds other than education in schools. CNHI Oklahoma reported there were 64 Oklahoma TFA placements for the 21-22 school year, the program’s lowest levels in a decade. That has prompted legislators to question the need for the $2 million price tag.

Emergency rule change

Walters also proposed an emergency rule change. The rule would prohibit districts from altering a students’ past school records to reflect a change in the student’s gender without state board approval.

Walters’ said his proposal was made in light of a recent decision by a Cleveland County District Court judge, who Walters calls a “radical, woke, activist judge.”

The rule passed unanimously and heads to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk. If Stitt signs it, it would then head to the legislature.

Board member Suzanne Reynolds said her background in science drove her decision to support the emergency rule.

“Coming from my own background in education and science, and I can say that I am a biologist with a degree, a Bachelor of Science,” Reynolds said. “Sex is not assigned at birth. It is determined by chromosomes and genetic code. This is, just, it goes against objective truth and reality. It is observed and recorded at birth. So to say that it can just be taken out of your record just is not consistent with what we are biologically as a binary species.”

Asked after the meeting why, if Walters prioritized parents’ involvement in making decisions for their children, are parents not involved in this rule? What if a parent wants their child’s records changed?

“You can’t change truth. You can’t change reality,” Walters said. “So if it says, if you’re a gender that is the gender that you are, you can’t go back and change your birth certificate. So we’ve got to stand for truth and reality in society.”

Proposal for accreditation standard change

While no formal rule change was presented, Walters said he wanted to “enter into a conversation” about changing accreditation standards so they tie to student outcomes.

The issue of low student performance was echoed repeatedly by Walters when he was in the throes of an accreditation battle with Tulsa Public Schools. Oklahoma statute, however, doesn’t define specific academic failures that trigger an accreditation ding. Walters aims to change that.

“I think it is time that we start thinking outside the box, and everything that we do here in the agency, I believe, should be linked to student outcomes,” Walters said. “I believe that failure should not be an option in the state of Oklahoma.”

Walters’ presentation included statistics on what he calls “failing schools” in Oklahoma. Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) schools receive support from the department and federal funds to implement improvement plans and work with a school support specialist. Schools that have been on the CSI list for three years or more are designated as More Rigorous Intervention (MRI) schools.

Walters said the state currently has 42 MRI schools. Those schools earned an “F” on their Oklahoma School Report Card, and/or have an average three-year graduation rate of 67% or lower, and/or are in the bottom 5% of their school model type report card scores.

The average proficiency rates for these schools, Walters said, are grim. About 19% are proficient in English, about 15.6% are proficient in science, and about 6.7% are proficient in math.

Walters recommends accounting for low performance designations in assigning accreditation levels. The board took no action on the issue at this meeting, but Walters signaled he wanted an action item on next month’s agenda that addresses accreditation standards.

Tulsa Public Schools presents improvement plan

Interim Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Ebony Johnson delivers the district's improvement plan at the September 2023 Oklahoma Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Interim Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Ebony Johnson delivers the district's improvement plan at the September 2023 Oklahoma Board of Education meeting.

After last month’s decision to raise the accreditation level for Tulsa Public Schools on condition of improvement, the district took its first shot at presenting a new improvement plan to the board.

As former TPS superintendent Deborah Gist stepped down from her position in August in hopes of thwarting a state takeover, interim Superintendent Ebony Johnson gave the progress report after nine days on the job. The district will continue to provide the board with monthly updates.

TPS’ improvement plan included three major areas: a professional development plan to train teachers in the science of reading, development of a corrective action plan for all “F” schools on the state report card, and the development, publication and execution of new internal controls.

Johnson began her presentation by painting a picture of the makeup of TPS. She said 80% are economically disadvantaged and 36% are multilingual learners — meaning their families speak a language other than English at home. She said over 70 different languages are spoken at TPS.

“As I say that there is critical work to be done, I want everyone to understand the complexity and the reality of this work and to also leave with the fact that we are up for the challenge. It’s all about our students,” Johnson said. “They represent all of the communities of our city. We have a beautiful challenge and calling to serve our students.”

Walters said while he “appreciated the attitude” of the presentation, he was “disappointed” not to see specific numbers of what their goals and metrics will be. Johnson said she would follow up with TPS’ data on growth and expectations.

The board’s next meeting will be Oct. 26.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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