Cathy Burden, Ph.D.
America was founded on the belief that an educated citizenry is necessary for a true democratic society. Therefore, universal access to quality educational opportunities is axiomatic as the bedrock of our society that values freedom and equality. Unfortunately, those very institutions in Oklahoma that provide education to all – public schools and higher education – are currently being starved for resources and are therefore challenged to meet the growing needs of a diverse population.
After a long history of less than adequate education funding, Oklahoma’s last five years have seen public schools significantly squeezed due to continual state funding cuts to education while also experiencing an increase in student enrollment. Oklahoma’s per pupil investment in common education has fallen more than 20% – the largest percentage drop in the entire nation. These record budget cuts have left our schools close to the bottom nationally in terms of per pupil funding and challenge our schools to produce results that ensure Oklahoma students are competitive in a global society.
In light of this history and the current budget failure crisis, it is somewhat ironic yet positive that the ImpactTulsa partnership has linked so many community stakeholders in a commitment to a shared vision of educational excellence. Hope for the future of Tulsa’s workforce has been energized by the idea that continuous improvement efforts will obtain measurable change in specific outcomes for students from birth to career by scaling successful programs from kindergarten to post-secondary. The idea of collective impact has engaged business, education, and non-profit, philanthropic and faith-based institutions in a mission to make Tulsa a community of educational excellence.
The seeming disconnect regarding the importance of education expressed in Tulsa and the responsibility to fully fund it from the state level is a threat to our future. Tulsa area superintendents have identified 667 positions that cannot be filled for next year unless more funding is prioritized by the state. Since education is a people-intensive business, the loss of quality teachers, caring counselors, and expanded learning opportunities is a serious threat to student success. The economic impact to our families of more than $33 million in lost salaries and to the $4 million in sales tax loss to the community is also staggering. The outcomes that Tulsans have identified as critical require well-trained educators, advanced classes, and interventions and opportunities based on individual student needs. To accomplish the aspirations that our community and our educators have, it will take more personnel rather than less.
We are experiencing a defining moment for Oklahoma. The current looming state budget failure threatens the quality of education and therefore the future of our citizens. Education is the most important investment we can make since it is correlated with health, economic growth, workforce development, and life/work satisfaction. How our state responds will reflect how the state prioritizes its values and sets its trajectory for the future. Let’s all work to encourage the state’s actions to be supportive to the goals of ImpactTulsa collective impact partners.