In this episode of Capitol Insider KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley speak with Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who shares her thoughts on the state's new report cards, regulating virtual charter schools, and school funding.
Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with the eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. Our guest is State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. Welcome.
Hofmeister: Thank you. It's great to be with both of you.
Ashley: There was a bill introduced to restrict four day school weeks and move schools more to a five day week. That bill has since been amended. Where does that stand now?
Hofmeister: Here's the problem: Many of our schools have stayed at five days or 180 hours or they've exceeded tha. But there are some that have dropped so far below in the number of days that they are attending yet still accomplishing that 1,080 hours that it has truncated the academic school year and actually widens the summer learning slide, when our students are out of school and then teachers spend you know weeks at the beginning of the school year to catch students back up and to regain momentum. And that is where I am concerned. We want a backstop checkpoint to ensure those students continue to make good progress, and also the the bill has a provision for an exemption that if the students are successful and they can show cost savings they can actually go below that 165 day backstop. So this is the first time we have put some kind of quality measure in place for an exemption to do what we're doing in many schools right now. You Just have to show that kids are being taken care of and continue to show progress.
Ashley: And if this bill is passed and signed into law then it will be up to the State Board of Education to write some of the rules that will implement that process.
Hofmeister: Yes. Those who are able to demonstrate that success for students and cost savings then there shouldn't be any problem.
Pryor: Last month you unveiled a new school report card system after a couple of years in development. Why was this new report card system needed? And how is it different?
Hofmeister: Yeah thank you for asking that it is needed because federal law changed. So No Child Left Behind was repealed from federal law, and it was replaced with ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act. In that we had, as states, new opportunities to meet the federal requirements but do that in a way that reflected the priorities of our own individual states. So, in Oklahoma, we said we want to measure the growth that is occurring in schools. Now this April we will be measuring for the third year in a row our new academic standards, and now we will begin to see a trend. And we want to be able to show the important work that our schools are doing. Many of our children are are very far behind when they start into the school year and this school report card reflects the the meaningful growth that is occurring aven though a student has yet to reach the proficient mark.
Pryor: According to reporting from the Tulsa World, the OSBI is investigating the online school the Epic Charter Schools. Transparency has been an issue. What do you see as the problem and how do you think it should be fixed?
Hofmeister: I do think that every dollar that is a public dollar that is going into a school needs to be very transparently accounted for, and that I believe is part of the clash of opinion in the legislature and in the school community, because there is less transparency as it exists today. I do think that there will be legislation moving forward to be able to accomplish greater transparency on every dollar. I think that that is absolutely owed to the taxpayer. There is also, you know...I think a the newness of virtual learning is not unique in our state. It is something that all states are wrestling with. How do we have appropriate accountability with school and student progress and how do we measure things that fit in a brick and mortar, traditional format like attendance, where attendance is not something that is measured in the same way for an online virtual school, which by design is a unique and more flexible format. So we want to be able to strike a balance, and that is going to take collaboration, teamwork, but at the end of the day I believe we owe it to the taxpayers to be fully transparent with every single dime.
Pryor: The need for teacher emergency certifications has a big issue in the last few years. Is that improving? That situation.
Hofmeister: It is improving in this way: We have now about 900 additional new teachers this year, and we are able to, at this point in session, look at our counts for who needs health care, all right? So those health care needs are rising and that means we have more people now in our public schools that are certified teachers, which we haven't seen in the past. So that is a good indication. And I mean every month we have some new way to measure are we going up or down when it comes to that. So we saw an uptick that we haven't seen in the past where in the past we've seen a decrease and sliding backwards with those numbers.
Emergency certified...The requests have been coming in, and we have seen this year reach I think the deepest need, with nearly 3,000 requests for emergency certification to the State Board of Ed. But I will mention this: last year when teachers had to make a decision on whether they were going to stay in Oklahoma and teach again for the for the upcoming school year that we're currently in now, that came at a time when there was confusion about whether the teacher pay raise would actually go into effect. There was an initiative petition that was gaining traction, and there was serious question if that would even materialize. So they had to make a decision, and many of them chose to leave. So then the need for emergency certified continued to grow. I think we hit bottom there, and all indications I see is that that has...We've hit a pivot point, and I will expect to see especially if we do see an additional teacher pay raise and more money into the classrooms, which I hear this is a priority of the House and the Senate. They're going to have to need I think to reach a compromise to do both, but we are seeing a willingness and a prioritization of increased funding and that is going to send a strong message I think to those teachers.
Pryor: We're talking to State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. When people talk about getting more money into the classroom what are we really talking about?
Hofmeister: OK. So it comes in the form of training for teachers like I just just was describing, trauma informed instruction, and there are very specific things that we can do for our teachers to know how to connect with children that have experienced trauma. Second, it is also about resources, the right people...License professional counselors, we need to have our speech language pathologists, additional support for reading tutors, reading specialists, a para-professional to support special education students or children with emotional difficulties that would allow them to actually be in a classroom and have the support that right now a teacher is shouldering on her own. Those are some examples. Technology is another. The ability to have textbooks. And then also the other thing I would describe is the return of a well-rounded education, where many programs the arts, music, debate, drama, et cetera, have been caught in the past because they weren't the basic core that had to be part of a graduating course of study. That's part of what I think of when I talk about more money into the classroom.
Pryor: Governor Stitt says he wants Oklahoma to be a top ten state. How does Oklahoma become a top ten state in education?
Hofmeister: Yes. We will never be a top ten state until we have the teachers, and until we have the teachers who are trained and who can support our kids. But I would say the answer to all of that is about families. We will not be a top ten state in education until we strengthen families when our families can remain intact and support their kids, and they have the addiction issue dealt with, when they have strong employment opportunities, and we begin to see a lowering of the low socio-economic condition across the state where right now...We have 61 percent of our kids qualifying for free and reduced price lunch. We now have children who have adverse childhood experiences that are profound. We are seeing increase in suicide mental for children, mental health issues that need support. All of this comes about when we think about the fact that Oklahoma has 96,000 children that have a parent who is or has been incarcerated. All of that impacts children. So I would like to say it this way: the world outside the classroom impacts the world inside the classroom and teachers are shouldering the brunt. It is about families and that struggle that we will overcome, and it is education that can catapult us there.
Ashley: But it seems like it's more than just at school. It seems like there's a role for criminal justice reform in this, that there's a role for perhaps Mental Health and Substance Abuse Service funding, and in a lot of other elements. Is the school system, perhaps, just the canary in the coal mine of other issues that need to be addressed in the state?
Hofmeister: Well I definitely think that school struggles are indicators of areas that we have weakness in our in our whole state. So you're exactly right. The world outside the classroom impacts the world inside the classroom, and that is exactly what I mean when I say that.
Pryor: Looking ahead through the appropriation process will pre-K through 12 education get more money?
Hofmeister: I believe it will. And we have seen that this last year, and I hear that from leadership in the House and the Senate. So what I expect is that we will see some form of a teacher pay raise. I am not confident what that amount will be yet. We know that there is limited amount of money. Obviously other agencies have also lost funding over these last four years. But if we don't make the smartest investment in education and in our youngest children we will we will simply chase this problem for decades.
Pryor: State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, thank you.
Hofmeister: Thank you. It's great to be with you.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.