Monday, April 9, 2018

"Waste! Fraud! Abuse!" Aysha Prather's Guest Blog

One of the joys of my advocacy journey is meeting other people who care about public schools, who sit with me during boring committee meetings, and floor debates. Who inform themselves and ask tough questions. My friend Aysha is one of those friends. We were recently sitting at a coffee shop, having just listened to Representative Emily Virgin talk to teachers and citizens about the Teacher Walk-out when we began laughing about the legislators we can always count on debating about the waste, fraud, and abuse in education...Aysha made a leap I expect from her to the REAL waste, fraud, and abuse in education: required standardized testing. I begged her to write this and here is her response to the real waste, fraud, and abuse in our schools. Enjoy...or don't enjoy. Get mad and write to your legislator.


Those of us who watch the Oklahoma Legislature regularly hear certain legislators sing the refrain of Waste, Fraud, and Abuse. It’s their answer to any suggestion that an agency or program isn’t properly funded by the state. And we heard it again this past week during debate about bills that would have raised revenue to fund Common Education. We can argue all day long about just how significant waste, fraud, and abuse are in state agencies, but there is one area where millions of dollars are wasted in schools, resulting in fraud and abuse that cheats students of their education for weeks or months of the school year.

We’ve also heard elected officials say that teachers should be in the classroom, rather than at the Capitol demonstrating for more funds in their classrooms. I support teachers’ continued action at the Capitol, and one reason is that during the month of April, my children do precious little learning in the classroom, anyway, due to the waste, fraud, and abuse that is state testing.


Every April, every public school student in grades 3-8 takes state tests. They are administered under high security, with test booklets and answer sheets sealed until they are passed out to students, and every testing room having both a certified teacher and an independent monitor to watch for any irregularities. Testing in every grade takes multiple days, with each testing session lasting two or three hours. During those hours, the teacher in the room is not allowed to do anything but watch the students complete their tests (or solve technical problems for testing on computers). Not grading, not preparing lessons, not doing any useful work. Those hours are WASTED. The volunteer monitor isn’t as restricted—they’re allowed to read or write (I usually bring paper and write long letters to my legislators), as long as it’s not on an electronic device, but it’s time WASTED that volunteers would rather spend helping the teacher in the classroom or doing any of the other tasks that parent volunteers do in schools every day.

When my children were in elementary school, they often spent the rest of testing days watching videos, because going out to the playground would have made too much noise for students who needed extra time on tests or those in other grades who were testing on a different schedule. In middle school, they test with their language arts classes, but test sessions take longer than a single class period, so every other class that day will have students missing. Those class periods are WASTED, as far as learning goes, because teachers are reluctant to introduce new material while some of the class is absent.

At my children’s middle school, tests are administered on computers, but there isn’t enough equipment for every student to test at once, so students rotate through the testing rooms. School staff have to move every computer into those rooms, remove or cover every bit of written material on the walls, connect the computers to the internet, and test to make sure each machine will work properly with the state testing system when a student is sitting in front of it. So much staff time and effort WASTED, and computers tied up for testing instead of being available for students to use for research, or writing, or learning skills necessary to 21st century workers.

In my children’s district, the counselor is also the test coordinator at each school site. She spends April making sure every batch of tests stays secure and gets to the right room at the right time, rounding up parents and community members to serve as test monitors, walking the halls during testing in case a student, teacher, or monitor needs to use the rest room (or to help an anxious 3rd grader who’s vomited on their test paper), and then collecting completed tests and keeping them secure until they are returned to the state department of education for scoring. She’s not spending those weeks counseling, or doing any of the other jobs that school counselors take on. When my children were in elementary school, that meant their weekly Gifted and Talented enrichment session was canceled for a month or two. So much counselor time WASTED and student needs not met.

The State Department of Education pays Measured Progress, the company that prepares our tests and scores them, millions of dollars per year. Last year, because state tests and score categories were revised to align with new standards in math and language arts, scores were returned to districts much later than usual. 3rd graders got their language arts scores first, in mid-summer, because the the Oklahoma Reading Sufficiency Act requires 3rd graders pass the state test in order to be promoted to 4th grade. Other students were well into the next grade before they or their teachers saw their scores. I finally saw my middle schoolers’ scores in November or December. They were no help to their teachers in revising instruction, or to my children in identifying areas of weakness. More than half a year later, they had moved on, and those weeks of testing last April were a WASTE.


Federal law requires annual testing by states in language arts and math, and testing in science once each in elementary, middle, and high school. Oklahoma state law reflects this, but adds the requirement that 3rd graders achieve a certain reading score in order to be promoted, and requires 8th graders to achieve a certain reading score in order to get a driver’s permit. Also, despite the state legislature repealing the requirement for 5th and 8th graders to take a writing test (after the writing test scores were thrown out two years in a row), there is a writing section in the language arts tests for those grades. My 8th grader’s language arts teacher told me that when she finally saw the scores from last year, they were absolutely meaningless. Administering a writing test is both contrary to the will of the Legislature and a FRAUD perpetrated on the students who spend hours composing written responses.

Annual testing is supposed to provide accountability, and the state turns a school’s test scores, along with other school information, into an A-F grade. How that grade is calculated has been revised, and may be a more sensitive measure of performance than in previous years, but it is still FRAUD to try to capture a school’s performance in a single letter grade, and it is FRAUD to tell parents that these tests tell them how well their children’s schools are performing.

The FRAUD is also perpetrated directly on students. Because school accountability measures are based on test scores, school administrators and teachers are under a lot of pressure to get high test scores. So they tell students that the tests measure what they’ve learned over the year, or that they may be used for placement in advanced classes next year. Here are practice questions for my 7th grader. The only thing this test would measure is her ability to stay on task when given passages to read that are as boring as writers can make them.

I usually browse through the sample test questions every year. I have yet to see them acknowledge that 21st century students go to google to answer all kinds of questions, and that kids need tools for evaluating which online sources are useful and factual.


When my children are spending their time on state tests instead of learning, and their learning time is disrupted because of the logistics of administering tests, that is ABUSE.

The worst ABUSE, however, is what we do to 3rd graders. The Reading Sufficiency Act requires that all 3rd graders receive a passing score on the reading portion of the state test in order to be promoted to 4th grade. Parents and teachers and Representative Katie Henke fought hard in 2014 to add parent and teacher team input to the decision of whether or not to promote based on test scores, and we’ve had to fight every year since to keep that team involved. What 3rd graders hear, though, is that if they don’t pass the test, they won’t go to 4th grade, period. In many schools, they spend weeks drilling on practice questions and worrying about their performance. Parents complain that the anxiety makes their children physically sick. Inflicting test anxiety on eight- and nine-year-olds is child ABUSE.

The other ABUSE is of the professionalism of teachers. All teachers give assessments—to find out what their students already know, to determine whether students have mastered the course content and concepts, to assess whether their own instructional methods are working. They have training and experience to prepare their own assessments and evaluate the results. The state assessments could be an objective reflection of how well students are mastering state standards, and provide useful feedback to teachers. But they would have to receive the results in a timely fashion, not half a year after the tests were administered, when they’ve already mapped out their lessons for the year. And they would have to have confidence that the test results were meaningful, and score ranks represented their own objectives for students. I trust my kids’ teachers to assess whether their instructional methods are effective--and whether my kids are doing the work required to learn the material--because their teachers are highly trained professionals. The state should treat them as such.

There are so many educational activities I would rather see my children doing in their classrooms than sitting for state tests. There are so many things their teachers would rather be doing. There are so many parent volunteers who would rather be helping teachers and students to stay focused on and enjoying learning. Everyone I talk to in their school seems to recognize that state testing is WASTE, FRAUD, and ABUSE. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get state officials to understand that?

Aysha Prather is an entomologist, a graduate of public schools and three public universities, the mother of two middle school students in Noble Public Schools, a gardener, goatherd, chicken keeper, and an accidental advocate for public schools and science education.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Danger, #oklaed!! SB1015 and SB1398

“Danger, Will Robinson!” I remember that cheesy television series, produced long before believable special effects, Lost in Space, about the family adrift in the universe with their trusty robot, Robot.  Will, the son of the intrepid travelers, was a bright if mischievous, young man who often needed Robot to pull him back from the brink of disaster. For people my age, the phrase, yelling, “Danger, Will Robinson" in your best robotic voice is shorthand for “Look out! Pitfalls ahead.”

As we have seen a huge (and getting larger every day) demonstration of educators, parents, students, and community, for more school funding and more funding for vital state services, I learned about two bills that will be on the House agenda for Monday, ready to be voted on by the full House.

Both are probably going to be sold as ‘helping’ #oklaed, but Robot is screaming in my ears, waving his mechanical arms wildly. I am asking you to write to your House Representative and 
ask for NO votes on both measures.

SB 1015 will, if I read it right, add “employees of an educational service provider contracted with a school district pursuant to subsection G of Section 5-117 of this title who perform functions that would otherwise be performed by a school district employee…” to the Flexible Benefits Allowance program for teachers.  This will include any “teacher, principal, supervisor, administrator, counselor, librarian, or certified or registered nurse” now employed by a charter school in our state, who will be added to the pool for state-paid ‘statutory’ health insurance coverage. I will be totally supportive of such a move, IF (and it’s a huge IF) the state, who pays for the flex benefit program, adds funds to the current allocation to cover the new employees. I see nothing in the bill as currently written that addresses adding funds.

The flex benefit allocation is always on the brink of disaster, as health-care costs rise and state school budgets dwindle. A large number of our new dollars we’re seeing slowly and grudgingly added to the school budget will be immediately claimed to cover flex benefits.

SO, add more employees to this coverage…but also add ALL the new money to fund the employees.  

I’m going to ask my Rep for a no on this…I want that assurance before I’m supportive.

The other bill that makes me shiver also has the awful potential to actually create more trouble for schools, even as it appears to be supportive and helpful.

SB1398 will give districts the ‘discretion’ to use bonding funds (you know, those elections we beg everyone to vote yes for?) for day-to-day ‘operations’.  Again, on the surface, this could be sold as a way to allow schools to ‘free up’ some cash without the strict restrictions of traditional bonding funds. Quoting from the original bill, ‘erecting, remodeling, repairing, or maintaining school buildings, for purchasing furniture, equipment and computer software…for repairing and maintaining computer systems and equipment, for paying energy and utility costs, for purchasing telecommunications utilities and services, for paying fire and casualty insurance premiums…for purchasing security systems, for paying salaries of security personnel…’ all can be paid for with bonded funds…loans the local voters agree to take on for the schools. These bond elections must pass with a super-majority, 60%, rather than the 51% for most elections because they are serious obligations and investments that the local community takes on for schools.

Remember all those public school critics who complain about rich schools that build a brand new football stadium, or a new science building? Or districts who buy intelligent classroom technology, and provide laptops or tablets to students? Those investments are secured through bonding…the local community agreeing to invest in the schools. Their property tax (ad valorem) assessment determines the bonding capacity for each district.  

SB1398 will ‘free up’ those funds secured through bond elections for…anything. For copy paper. For office supplies. For teacher salaries.  It would be the equivalent of our paying our mortgage with a credit card…it is not something that makes good fiscal sense. It’s the act of a desperate person trying to survive until the next paycheck and hope he can pay down that balance.
But to me there’s a much bigger problem with this bill, and it comes down to the Constitutional right to a free education for every child in our state. Not just the rich kids who live in expensive homes that drive up the ability of school districts to incur these bond obligations.  If this bill passes, zip code will determine a student’s access to schools that are well-equipped, buildings that are not falling apart (since some desperate districts will STOP using bonded funds for the capital improvements they need and use those funds to support the day-to-day operations of their schools – on credit), to well-paid teachers. Now the accident of a child’s address will lead to the loss of opportunities or the expansion of opportunities.

This bill also gives me flashbacks to another time when the legislature ‘freed up’ districts from some of the regulations to provide textbooks to schools, and follow strict guidelines for library services and librarians to schools. Years ago another legislature ‘deregulated’ all these rules…told districts IF they wanted, they could spend that money the state sent for ‘other’ necessities. And what is the result of that deregulation? Tattered textbooks and school libraries that are closed, with no new books for years, and no library media professional to support students and teachers.

Robot’s arms are flailing! 

We’ve tried this kind of deregulation before. While it might allow a district to survive another year, it does NOT address issues of inequity and student need.  I’ve seen the devastating results of deregulation in school libraries, and I know the cause is that previous legislature’s unwillingness to do the right thing and fully fund schools.

The potential results of SB1398 will follow that same path to limited opportunities for students and 
fewer resources for their students.

The potential results of SB1015 (unless it’s fully funded) will be a depletion of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s Activity Fund…the fund that had been shorted more than once in recent years, leading to unexpected cuts to programs across the state.

The potential results of both these bills will be to cut funding from the fragile budget the legislature is trying to cobble together as I write.

Until my concerns are addressed, and my fears proved wrong, I must fight these two bills. I hope you’ll join me and write to YOUR Representative and ask for that NO vote on Monday.
And you might also ask, pretty-please, for a vote on capital gains

And I’ll see you at the Capitol Monday, continuing to press for fully-funded classrooms, and raises for our support personnel and state workers. This is NOT the time to add to the inequity in our state.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

NOW Our Hard Work Begins...

Monday we will, once again, descend on the Capitol Building at 23rd and Lincoln to express our frustrations about school funding…and state funding. And, yes, we can thank legislators for finally, finally, finding 75% of the House and Senate to vote for revenue-raising, tax-raising measures.

I’ve said it before, but when I marched in support of HB1017 in 1990, my daughter was in 5th grade. NOW, tomorrow, I’ll be marching WITH her daughter, a senior in high school. All the gains from HB1017 have been lost, and the state has the dubious distinction of cutting education funding more deeply than any other state in the union in the last ten years. So, I’m going back to the Capitol with my Grand. Who will be voting in the June primaries.
I’ll be trying to develop genuine lines of communication…with my own legislators (actually, I’ve already been working on that).
I’ll be working to develop lines of combination with the Education Committee in the Senate and the Common Education Committee in the House
I’m going to be an informed voter…I’m going to help inform others about candidates’ position on MY issues (see above).
Our work STARTS on Monday and continues every day.

To remind others of what we were fighting for in 1990, here is Dan Nolan’s post, and my own.

Yes, we watched an historic vote last week…both houses passing a budget that required raising taxes at the nearly-impossible threshold of 75%. Yes, it’s the first time this state has raised taxes since the 1990’s, after the revolt against HB1017. Lots to celebrate.

And almost no time to celebrate before we watched a chunk of that funding disappear in a totally bizarre bit of theater in the House on Thursday. I sat there. I watched, and I couldn’t accurately describe what happened, except that $50m of our new revenue was gone.  Along with our hope and budding confidence.

Right now, the tax bill, HB1010XX (second extraordinary session) has been signed.  So was HB1011XX, which will cap itemized deductions on income tax. This link to a KGOU article shows the chaos that was last week…Read to the end. That new revenue will fund teacher raises, and some funding for per pupil investment, which has fallen as drastically as teacher salaries.  The teacher pay-schedule bill is on her desk, as are the bills for support raises and state raises. 

The need is still great…support personnel raises should not be subject to the legislature, I understand…those raises should be part of the per-pupil investment…which right now does not cover. State workers, who also have not seen a raise in 10 years…and lost their defined-benefit pensions for the promise (broken) for a raise. These folks also support our students. We are a team with a common goal: help families raise healthy children who come to school ready and able to learn.

When I describe myself as an education voter, I am quick to explain that, in my mind, includes prenatal care, adequate nutrition, a living wage for parents, housing, health insurance and health care, social services, public libraries…you get the picture. To me, these are all education issues.

So that means I’m going Monday with some specific ‘asks’ that will raise revenue to help cover more per-pupil, and state workers’ raises.  I want to focus on the WHOLE system that is crumbling. I want adequate, recurring, dedicated funding to our schools and state agencies. I want these funds, these salary raises to create a vibrant economy where working people actually have money to spend…to buy appliances, to spend the evening out for dinner and a movie…I want the real job-creators (middle and working class) to stimulate the economy of our state. I’m ready.

So, on Monday when I go to the Capitol here’s my message: Where else can we find new funding to add to our budget? I only know of ONE source right now, but there may be others…some bills are ‘dead’ but could be revived via shell bills. After watching the legislature last week, I know there are rules I know nothing about that might be able to expedite more revenue.

So for now…

SB1086 – this is a bill to reform capital gains tax credits. Currently it benefits 1% (That’s right ONE PER CENT) of our citizens, and could bring in upwards of $100m a year. It’s passed in the Senate and has been sent to the House. Floor Leader Echols and Speaker McCall control what bills are heard, so I’ve emailed, and will have cards to deliver to their offices asking that it be put on the Floor Calendar as soon as possible.

I’ve heard others talk about the Ball-and-Dice bill, but all I can see is a bill that died in the Senate and isn’t being considered.  I hear others also talk about Wind taxes…and I will plead complete and utter ignorance on this issue…I know some districts are actually getting nice money from wind, so messing with those sources might end up hurting schools.  Folks, this is the reason you DO NOT want me in the legislature…my level of ignorance is stunning. Deep and wide.

Tomorrow…and Tuesday and Wednesday… I will thank legislators for reaching that 75% threshold for the first time in 28 years. We take our victories where we find them. And as teachers we know the importance of acknowledging steps in the right direction.

BUT, I’ll also be asking for the cap gains bill to be heard in the House and passed.  

I’ll be asking if there IS any creative way to generate more revenue for all the needs our state has.

I’ll be asking.

I’ll be reaching out to House leadership to be creative (and Constitutional) about finding funding.

I’ll be asking for a long-term commitment to MORE funding for schools and state agencies.

And, yes, I’ll be thanking many for voting for HB1010XX.

But here’s the deal, and here’s where I think we made our big mistake 28 years ago: I’m not going away.

I’m going to stay engaged. I’m going to watch. I’m going to search committee and floor agendas for education and budget bills. I'm going to share any information I can find on social media.

I’m going to share observations and concerns. I’ll watch the legislature so my teacher friends can work with their students.

I’m going to encourage my teacher friends, some of whom sometimes don't vote, to vote.  One of the reasons policy makers don’t take teachers as a whole seriously is our voting record shows too few of us vote. And many of us don’t vote for education issues (see above).

Here’s what I know about my blog posts about voting: they are the lowest-read pieces I write. People don’t seem to want to read about voting. Here and here  and here  and here. And this is my first voting post  Sorry/not sorry for linking all the old posts. I write about voting a lot. To a tiny audience, it appears.

I’m working with Joe Dorman on a project to encourage and support educators to get out the vote…nonpartisan support. Chalk the Vote’s goal is to have a teacher block captain in every school to talk up registering to vote, learning who your legislators are, contacting them, and getting out the vote with mail-in voting, with early voting, or in-person voting on Election Day. If you’re a teacher, please join us!

We thought after our fight for HB1017, and against the State Question that would have defunded it, that our work in education policy was finished. We were wrong, and it’s gotten us to this point.

I’ll see you all on Monday. I have a great sign. 

But if you think our work is finished, you are wrong.

This has been the easy part. NOW our hard work begins.