Hofmeister: Schools are essential
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister spoke up on Friday, saying Oklahomans must insist on a strong public education system and that reforms to challenges, like the state’s teacher shortage and low pay, must be priorities of lawmakers.
During a forum sponsored by Public Education Advocates for Kids at Tri County Tech’s Event Center in Bartlesville, Hofmeister answered questions posed to her by two Bartlesville educators and one Bartlesville High School student.
Madison Middle School Principal Joey Edisen said education in Oklahoma is a political lightning rod on both sides of the aisle. He asked Hofmeister what the State Department of Education is doing to make education less political.
“We have to strip away rhetoric and emotionally-charged soundbites and focus on data,” Hofmeister said. “What we also must do is engage more people in the process and that helps to create more understanding, which will foster passion to get the job done.”
In response to a question from Bartlesville High School senior Greta Olsen, the state superintendent emphatically said politics do not belong in the classroom, and state lawmakers must understand the negative impact it is having on teachers and children when they play politics with education.
“Do you know how sad it is when I get a call from a national newspaper to talk about Oklahoma can only have kids going to school four days a week? They think that everyone is going to school four day a week,” Hofmeister said. “That is actually happening because of the teacher shortage and schools are able to retain people that need to work two jobs… Politics don’t belong in classrooms, unless it’s a political science class.”
Central Middle School teacher Brian Davis said teachers in Oklahoma, including himself, are asking why they should stay in the state, when the teacher pay and education funding are both well below regional and national averages.
Hofmeister said Oklahoma must do a better job of keeping talented teachers in the state’s classrooms.
“We have to support our people that work in our schools and support the cost of being there,” Hofmeister said. “We are never going to be competitive if we shortchange our kids and our teachers… It is my opinion that we must insist on a strong public education system.”
The state superintendent said she is frustrated with and disappointed in Oklahoma lawmakers for not being able to raise teacher pay.
“We can’t take any excuses any longer. It’s been since 2006 since Oklahoma gave a teacher pay raise, and at that time it was $600. That’s appalling,” Hofmeister said. “An investment is required. It’s not going to be something that can just happen by growing our economy and suddenly we just have a lot of extra money to give a pay raise. It’s going to take a plan. It’s going to take a commitment to do something that legislators may not want to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Even with the failure of the state House of Representatives and state Senate to pass a comprehensive revenue package so far in the special session, Hofmeister said she is encouraged to see the amount of lawmakers who are trying to make a difference.
“On Monday and Wednesday, 108 Oklahoma legislators voted to increase revenue at a level they haven’t since 1992,” Hofmeister said. “Now, we fell five votes short, but that’s progress. That does give me hope. … We can’t keep making excuses for why we just can’t afford to educate our kids. Every year that we fail to invest in education, we divest in Oklahoma’s future.”