Oklahoma Education Department slammed over withholding school funds
BY ANDREA EGER World Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2012
8/01/12 at 11:58 AM
See an overview of statewide test results for 2011-12.
OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma State Department of Education on Thursday drew new criticism for withholding a record amount of state aid for anticipated growth, namely at virtual and charter schools.
State board members Lee Baxter of Lawton and Joy Hofmeister of Tulsa were joined by Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman in questioning the department's timing and decision to reserve nearly $64 million from initial allocations sent to school districts.
That includes $26 million for new virtual students and seven new charter schools.
"Prioritizing charter schools and virtual school students over traditional schools is disheartening and demoralizing to public school educators," Lehman said. "The research states very strongly that placing the very best classroom teachers and then providing those teachers with the very best training is the single most effective method for improving student achievement. Why then do we continue trying to find the 'golden apple' for student achievement elsewhere?"
Board members said they were getting slammed with calls and emails from school administrators who are reeling from notifications that they will receive less money to start the new academic year because they were expecting similar dollar amounts to what they received for 2011-12.
Last year, the Education Department withheld $41 million, or 2.26 percent, to keep in reserve, but this year, the nearly $64 million amounts to 3.52 percent of all state aid for public schools.
Department officials said student membership numbers used to calculate state aid are expected to increase by 11,000, plus skyrocketing virtual school enrollment and enrollment at new charter schools had to be considered, as well.
A Tulsa World survey of the largest school districts in the area showed every one has been allocated less in state aid compared to last year - $1.75 million in Tulsa, $210,000 in Jenks, $522,827 in Owasso and $692,000 in Union.
Board member Amy Ford of Durant said she had been contacted by concerned school leaders and wasn't adequately prepared to respond.
"This is difficult for the small, rural schools that are trying to operate," she said.
Baxter repeatedly asked why school districts couldn't have been warned sooner.
"That's not right at all. They expect you to withhold 1.5, 1.6, 1.7 percent. It's just that this year, we withheld more without any warning in advance," he said. "I never said there was anything arbitrary or capricious. There was just no communication at all. We can do better than that. These guys have to operate districts, we just have to push around numbers."
Hofmeister said she was told $8 million was being withheld for start-up costs for a new statewide, virtual charter school, saying, "I think this could be part of the question. Why does this particular mandate jump to the head of the priority line in funding?"
State Superintendent Janet Barresi, who has founded charter schools in the past, bristled.
"Funding for education in this country has doubled over the last 10 years with flatline results. Do we just throw a lot more money at it? Respectfully, school choice is a right in this state. It is not a luxury. It's an important part of the mix in education," Barresi said.
Chief of Staff Joel Robison clarified that $8 million was reserved for new students at existing virtual schools, while another $18 million is being reserved for new charter schools that are expected to open in August.
Baxter then asked, "We have a responsibility to give them $18 million for this?"
Barresi responded that the amount was based on the maximum number of students who could enroll in those new charter schools and that any leftover funds would be distributed to traditional public schools as soon as possible.
She also said there was no "predictive measure" they could have used. But Robison offered: "From a communications standpoint, we should do better, should have done better and will do better. I appreciate what you're saying. I wouldn't want to be in that position."
Other business: Seven Tulsa students and one Owasso student were among the 11 appeals the state Board of Education approved from seniors who were denied a diploma because of high-stakes testing requirements.
The class of 2012 was the first to be required by state law to pass four of seven end-of-instruction exit exams to graduate. The vast majority of the appeals considered Thursday were denied "based upon verified evidence the student did not meet criteria for granting an exception," including 56 from Tulsa students. Still others, including four from Tulsa students and one from a Sapulpa student, were dismissed, "based upon verified evidence that a diploma has not yet been denied."
Four other cases, including two from Tulsa, were continued for consideration at a future meeting. No reason was given for the continuance, but they were the same four appeals cases that the board clerk said were added to the agenda after its legal posting, which by law must be completed 24 hours in advance.
State, local results on testing
Statewide, public school students showed improvement in 2011-12 on Oklahoma Core Curriculum Tests for third- through eighth-graders and end-of-instruction exams for high-schoolers.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education reported gains of 3 percent to 4 percent in reading and math proficiency among sixth-graders and in reading proficiency among seventh-graders. Students in nearly every other grade level given the core curriculum tests demonstrated modest gains of 1 percent to 2 percent in reading and math proficiency, meaning their scores were at the satisfactory or advanced level.
Also, high-schoolers are showing higher rates of proficiency on exit exams, with the greatest single increase in Algebra II - up 8 percent to 74 percent overall. Algebra I and Geometry proficiency were both at 82 percent because of increases of 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
English III saw satisfactory and advanced scores among 85 percent of test-takers statewide, an improvement of 1 percent.
Baseline proficiency rates were released for English II, Biology I and U.S. History - 86 percent, 76 percent and 74 percent, respectively - because there are no previous years' rates to which they can be compared.
Also, the Tulsa and Oklahoma City school districts were placed on accreditation probation for the fourth consecutive year and Union Public Schools received probation for a third year in a row.
Schools can receive probation if they consistently fail to remove or make substantial progress toward removing deficiencies identified the previous year, consistently violate regulations, deliberately and unnecessarily violate one or more regulation, or are identified as a "school improvement" site in Year 3 status or beyond.
The most common accreditation deficiencies this year were having school sites targeted by the state for improvement, school board members failing to meet training requirements and having library media that does not meet state board regulations.
Original Print Headline: Withheld school aid draws new criticisms
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470
Kirby Lehman: The Jenks school superintendent objected to "prioritizing charter schools and virtual school students over traditional schools."