OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s first elected Republican state schools superintendent is pulling back the veil on misconceptions and half-truths long advanced by the powerful education establishment. Her efforts are challenging propaganda that has ensured spiraling, wasteful spending that has not improved learning.
After decades of misinformation or partial disclosure, voters are convinced that teachers are paid like paupers, have few classroom resources and are not responsible for poor student performance.
But transparency data is increasingly being posted on the Department of Education website that Superintendent Janet Barresi runs. The information proves common education, K-12, is a black hole of excessive administrators, personnel and resources. This, despite the fact that advocates come to the state Legislature yearly, pleading poverty.
It also shows massive resources go into overhead, administrative salaries, support personnel and operations of too many districts relative to student count. The state has far more educators than it needs, compared to the national average.
Supt. Barresi and lawmakers have their work cut out for them, but they are chipping away at misconceptions and the status quo. They face a blockade comprising the National Education Association’s local union, key legislators, school districts and even voters themselves who vehemently oppose any loss of what is called “local control.”
Clearly there are many reasons education has held a chokehold on the state budget.
The education establishment is quick to revolt at any cost cutting efforts. They’ll storm the capitol. They’ll flood lawmakers’ offices with emails and phone calls. And it works.
Still, it’s a radioactive topic at the Legislature; a lawmaker who receives even a few constituent calls is easily spooked.
“If a legislator gets even four or five calls (about consolidation legislation) it really scares them,” commented one observer involved in common education who spoke on condition of anonymity..
“In many small towns, the school is the primary source of jobs,” the anonymous source continued. “Without a school district, the towns would dry up. But should that stand in the way of what’s best for the state?”
Supt. Barresi knows the mood of the people she’s dealing with.
“I’ve said from the beginning that I am against forced consolidation of school districts,” she said in a statement to CapitolBeatOK this week. “No matter what I think about this issue, this needs to be a decision that is driven by local teachers, parents and individual school districts that are making decisions for their local areas.
“My focus is on reducing administration costs by building in efficiencies wherever possible to get the most money into the classrooms as we can. We do this by offering purchasing co-ops where possible, such as for instruction or for transportation, so that we achieve economies of scale.”
She continued, “We can’t force a one-size-fits-all solution. In some cases, a leader’s salary is indicative of multiple hats that person is wearing, such as serving as superintendent as well as principal, bus driver, classroom teacher.”
Supt. Barresi was elected as a reformer. She immediately began diverting some funding to preschool education, virtual schools and achieved some economies in rural districts, where the cost ratios are high.
The economy has caused additional pressures on small towns, propelling some families to bigger cities in search of jobs. There is a noteworthy downward trend in student head count – the major driver of funding.
Supt. Barresi has posted financial data on the department’s web site that shows just how expensive it is to operate more than 520 districts for 615,000 students. (By comparison, contiguous neighbor state Colorado serves nearly 900,000 students with 186 school districts).
Recently, Barresi has also achieved consolidation of seven superintendents’ jobs, said Tricia Pemberton, spokesperson for the state education department.
Many Oklahoma rural districts reflect a student-teacher ratio of 1:10 or less. The national average is 1:16. Statewide, Oklahoma’s average is about 1:12. This inflates the cost of administrators, building operations, support personnel and transportation.
In 2010, the most recent year available, the web site shows:
About 51,400 certified staff (both classroom and non-instructional)
Average Salary: $40,370.
If it were increased to match the 1:16 national average, it could save taxpayers roughly a half billion dollars.
State Appropriations: $2.3 billion (the amount previously advanced in education circles in public discourse)
All other funding sources, including federal: $3.6 billion.
Total common education funding: $5.9 billion
The cost of administrative personnel skyrockets due to the large number of districts (although many rural districts have only a few hundred children).
The cost of administrative personnel – full-time, not full-time equivalent, benefits excluded:
499 Superintendents, collectively earn: $44.1 million
82 Assistant Superintendents, collectively earn: $7.3 million
1,504 Principals earn a combined: $97.3 million
599 Assistant Vice Principals collectively earning: $35.1 million
Total district leadership salaries: $184 million
Many districts are located within blocks of each other in the same small cities or within 10-15 minutes of other small towns.
One example: Three admininstrators earning a combined $137,000 annually run tiny Cave Springs School District with 118 students.
What vexes come capitol observers most is taxpayers themselves (mostly rural) are among those most opposed to cutting costs.
If Oklahoma students were thriving, it would be different. But by middle school, many are functionally illiterate. Based on the last year of No Child Left Behind reporting, the state’s entire education system was categorized as failing to improve.
In past years, Democrats had more equal strong government representation, but the tide has turned. Republicans hold every elected office and most elected seats.
“Consolidation – that’s a dirty word to us,” said a small town superintendent, Andy Evans. “Nah, I’m just kidding.”
Oklahoma’s new legislative Republican majority has a few more years to show whether it can and will withstand those dirty words or cave in to a long tradition of ceding to common education bullying.