Saturday, April 07, 2018

Oklahoman Editorial Board: Textbook complaints indict local school boards


Textbook complaints indict local OK school boards

AT this week's teacher protests, many participants demanded that lawmakers attach more strings to state school funding. Teachers didn't use those exact words, of course, but the underlying message was the same, and it's an implicit indictment of local school boards' management.

Many teachers complained that their classes have outdated or worn-out textbooks. One teacher said, “I don't have one textbook in my classroom.” Some protesters held aloft battered copies of textbooks as visual props.

It's true Oklahoma lawmakers haven't provided a line-item appropriation for textbooks for several years. The reason for that change is worth noting. Fortunately, legislative leaders explicitly addressed the issue in 2016.

That year, former House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, and Senate Appropriations & Budget Committee Chairman Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, issued a release on elimination of a line-item appropriation for textbooks.

“The Legislature put $33 million previously line-itemed for textbooks into the state-aid funding formula so schools can make spending decisions at the local level based on their own unique needs,” Hickman said. “Education leaders, including Superintendent (Joy) Hofmeister, made it clear to us this session that schools wanted more money directed through the funding formula so schools will have more discretion and flexibility. The funds didn't go away. Schools are still receiving the money that would have been line-itemed for textbooks, but now they have greater discretion to use those dollars for more pressing needs at the local level or to buy new textbooks.”

Jolley noted that schools "have been crying out for more money to be placed in the formula for several years in a row. When I asked the leadership of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association if it would be more important for these funds to be in textbooks or the formula, I was told the formula gave the greatest flexibility to districts.”

In short, state textbook funding has not been eliminated. Instead, local schools have been given the chance to use that money elsewhere if desired. With a line-item appropriation, schools could spend the money only on textbooks.

So it's worth asking: If schools haven't used any of that money on textbooks since then, what did districts do with those millions? Based on the teachers' protests, the cash apparently didn't go to teacher pay. And if this is a problem, why aren't teacher union members protesting local school boards that diverted textbook funds to other uses?

On a similar note, the Senate has advanced a measure, Senate Joint Resolution 70, that would allow voters to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to give schools the flexibility to use local property tax for some operational costs, such as teacher pay. Currently, that money can be used only for buildings. Yet education groups opposed SJR 70.

If a good teacher is the most important expenditure in a school's budget, then why should the state make it illegal for schools to direct available money to teacher pay? The textbook issue suggests an answer.

Teachers often decry state “micromanagement.” Yet when it comes to textbook funds and use of schools' property taxes, it seems many educators have more faith in state-level dictates than in the financial oversight of their local school boards.

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