Public education is the foundation of our free and democratic society. But in Oklahoma, it is still in a perilous state.
Early this year, the Education Policy Group, comprised of former teachers, was created in the Oklahoma House. My colleagues and I were tasked with studying public education in Oklahoma, identifying what works and what doesn’t, and determining how best to reform and transform our education system.
We launched into this monumental task and the coronavirus struck, throwing schools and schooling into turmoil. Yet the pandemic also gave us insights. Fault lines running through our education system were exposed in sharper relief, providing clarity to set goals and plan legislation.
Our fundamental goal is to build – or rebuild – a single, strong, unified public education system to serve every student across the state. To achieve this, we will propose legislation that addresses immediate problems and forms the foundation for long-term improvement.
In 2011, Epic Charter Schools was established as a distinct online schooling system separate from local “brick-and-mortar” schools – and a publicly funded charter run by a for-profit company.
From the start, Epic has operated by a different set of rules covering attendance, grading, marketability, funding, accountability and more. These rules gave Epic distinct advantages and put local schools at a disadvantage. Over time, divisions widened, leading to conflicts both detrimental and costly.
When public schools went virtual in March, many parents enrolled their children in Epic, and it is now the largest school “district” in Oklahoma. This is not to disparage parents, Epic teachers, or online education. The problem is that local schools faced unequal instructional and budgetary restrictions.
For the good of teachers, students, parents, and Oklahoma public education, we must resolve the conflict, close the divide, and end inequities. We will take several steps to begin this journey. For the 2021 session, we will propose new, unified standards of academic progress, attendance, and basic funding for schools of every kind.
Given the ongoing pandemic, state officials are unsure whether standardized testing will occur in 2021 – if instruction can’t be uniform across districts and schools, how can there be “standard” outcomes to test? This challenge is also an opportunity. Now is the best possible time to redefine measures of success and progress. Coordinating with local and virtual school districts, we will recommend instructional outcomes as the correct measures, set new benchmarks, gather data to champion new standards, and end our dependence on standardized testing.
With new measures, teachers will no longer be pressured to “teach to the test” but freed to engage in active, experiential instruction. Students, instead of learning enough to fill in scannable bubbles, will once again discover, understand, analyze, synthesize, solve, formulate, write, create, design, engineer, build, and grow.
Unified standards will make it easier for teachers to alternate between in-person and online instruction, or adopt new hybrid schooling models. Students will find it easier to navigate between in-class, virtual, alternative, and hybrid models – and find which model suits their learning styles.
Longer-term, unified standards will make it practical to coordinate diverse instruction models and curriculum. When academic achievement, rather than age, drives advancement, students can work at their own pace, some moving to next-level work sooner, others working at a steadier pace.
Of course, everything depends on money. Our fiscal thinking is guided by two principles – public education is essential, and budget transparency is essential.
The recent audit proves that Epic must be held to the same accountability standards as all public schools. We will propose requiring transparency in all spending of tax dollars and unifying school funding so local and virtual schools follow one set of rules.
From a budget perspective, we expect this year and next to be tough. Nonetheless, we will make a strong case to maintain school funding at current levels. As revenues improve, we will push for equitable funding for all schools statewide – suburban, urban, and rural. Every school and every student in Oklahoma deserves no less.
Ranson represents Stillwater in District 34 of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.