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Walls falling in

Education in the time of Gist

Deborah Gist in the Charles C. Mason Education Service Center earlier this month

Greg Bollinger

The principal on the principle of the thing:

Nothing good about it. Nothing. Students will suffer. Families will suffer. Overworked, underpaid, unappreciated, very tired people will take a cut in pay. While it could be much worse, it’s still disgusting. There are no good options. My fourth-and-fifth grade classes have 30 students. I don’t feel I can ask anyone to take on one more responsibility. It’s not fair. We can’t find substitutes. It took me nine weeks to find a teacher to fill a vacancy. How do you make a difference when the walls keep falling in?

That’s Kenneth Joslin, principal at Mayo Demonstration School. Full disclosure: my girlfriend’s son goes there and Kenneth and I are friends, but it’s not like he’s telling me something in confidence. In fact, he’s not really even telling me. That was his Facebook post.

Such is the frustration in education in Oklahoma that a principal takes to social media instead of the heavy bag at the gym. 

What has happened here is what happens when legislators think education is a by-product of a good economy and not a catalyst for one, when horizontal drillers are more entitled to a piece of the state economic pie than social studies teachers, when parents get an extra $27 per year in tax rebates but there’s no money for jazz bands, when vouchers and charters are encouraged as alternatives to functioning and fully funded public schools, when gimmicks like lotteries and fees on haircuts, tattoos, and smokers are trotted instead of structural budgetary reform. Any wonder that teachers have to borrow money from their parents to make ends meet.

How many years already? It’s not a rhetorical question.

Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding of the state aid formula for public schools has fallen 26.9 percent after inflation between FY 2008 and FY 2017. These continue to be the deepest cuts in the nation, and Oklahoma’s lead is growing. On a percentage basis, we’ve cut nearly twice as much as the next worst state, Alabama.

Governor Fallin said during her State of the State Address that our goal—our goal—should be five-day school weeks for all Oklahoma school children. 

That’s not a clarion call. That’s a kazoo. 

Let’s begin.

I called Deborah Gist, Tulsa Public Schools superintendent, last week—she’s held a thousand or so interviews lately—to talk not so much about it, but about her. She’s from Tulsa, a graduate of Memorial High School, earned a bachelor’s from the University of Oklahoma, a doctoral degree in education leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, and came to us in 2013 after spending six years in Rhode Island as education commissioner. 

“Do you regret it? Are you disillusioned?”  

“I go back and forth,” she tells me. “Angry and sad.”

A few weeks back, she wasn’t so ambivalent. She told Newson6.com, “What we are doing to ourselves as Oklahomans? … It’s just stupid.”

Charlie Pierce of Esquire picked up the quote.

“A question,” he replied, “for which there is no answer.”

How do you make a difference when the walls keep falling in?

Gist wishes now she was more discreet, but her frustration is palpable. She can’t, won’t call into question the motivations of legislators, but—my words here—they’re deplorable. 

“The state zeroed out the money for textbooks.”

Who does that?

We do that.

She talks about the importance of modern education protocols, the importance, say, of added funding for classes on computer coding for each student in Tulsa Public Schools.

“But, you don’t have enough napkins in the cafeteria…” I interrupt.

“—We don’t have enough anything,” she interrupts back.

She’s about had it with claims there’s a great vat of waste, fraud, and abuse in the central office that should be cut. 

“I get it. I started with cuts to the central office. I did it last year, I did it this year. That’s where we should be starting. That said, certainly I can speak for Tulsa Public Schools: our district office is too lean. It is not top heavy.”

Read that again. Too lean. 

“Do Oklahoma legislators even care about education?”

“It’s not an option,” she says. “Saying they ‘don’t care’ doesn’t mean we get a solution. We have to concentrate on the tactics we use, how to raise awareness, how do we make the case to legislators who are aware—so we just have to get smart and get organized.”

It should have been a “yes” or “no” answer.

“We have underinvested in education for so many decades, [that] we have a distorted view of what it takes to provide an excellent education—or even an adequate education. We have normalized things that would be completely unacceptable elsewhere.”


“Every year on social media, you hear these calls out about test monitors. People are great, so they do it. I have never seen that in my entire professional career. The reason for that is in other places you have counselors and social workers… and others who work in the building and serve kids and teachers year-round, but we are so short-staffed, there aren’t enough adults. This isn’t fluff.”

Everyone agrees that 35 kids in the classroom, four-day school weeks, and teachers leaving the state is a bad thing, but not until a school like Jenks runs out of money for football will people descend upon the Capitol with pitchforks and torches. I ask her if we’re getting close to that point—if that’s the hardball she has to play.

“Sadly, we don’t have a choice,” Gist says. “That wouldn’t be a tactical maneuver. Unless they fix the structural deficit in this legislative session with revenue adjustments, we will literally be having this conversation next year. We’ve already hit rock bottom, and that means we’re now digging holes. The general belief is you hit rock bottom and then people’s behavior changes. Well, we’ve hit rock bottom and we’re still having the same conversation.”

I rephrase my question: do legislators here care about public education? And what of early criticism of her that called into question her own commitment to public education, namely her membership in the somewhat controversial school organization called Chiefs for Change, whose website still features her.

“First off, charter schools are public schools.”

(True, once the vig is paid.)

Let’s continue. 

“I have literally spent my entire life, from the time I was five years old, in public schools … doing this work. It’s why I was put on this earth. I’m most passionate about it. Public education is why our country is so great—it’s the core.”

There it is.

Yes, Gist tells me, when she talks to legislators in Oklahoma City they agree with that sentiment. Maybe she has to say that, maybe she wants to believe that, but to hear those words—from Governor Fallin, President Trump, our senators, congressmen—“public education is why our country is so great” would be a turning point. 

How does she explain the state of education in Oklahoma on her worst days?  

Teacher raises come up.

“We’re going to give them $1,000 this year, $2,000 next year, $3,000 the year after,” she says, somewhat mockingly. “That’s a $6,000 raise. I’m grateful for that, they deserve it, but with that said, the gap that we have for them in terms of adequately compensating our teachers is $10,000, $20,000 … in one year. I know we’re not going to do that, but I wish by, say, 2030, we are going to be at the rate of the regional average, something like that. What I’m most worried about,” she says, referring to the incremental raises, “is we get this done and then everyone in the state is like, ‘Okay, got that done.’ So the next time it comes up, it’s like, ‘We just gave the teachers a raise.’ Dallas teachers get $3,000 a year, every year, and they’re already $20,000 ahead of us.”

Gist’s contract ends on June 14, 2018. 

“If nothing has changed, nobody would blame you if you don’t renew,” I tell her. “So, on that date, you still here? I have a bet you won’t be, so let’s talk the morning of June 15, 2018.”

“I’ve got it on my calendar.”

But then she’s serious again.

“I came here to … stay, so I have no intention of that not happening.” 

And then, again, about the thought of leaving. 

“I can’t go there. I can’t imagine that happening. Not because of me, not because of my plans. It is unacceptable and I … I need stronger language somehow—it is unfathomable to think that we as a state would not solve this for our kids, for our collective futures.”

For more from Barry, read his second interview with Mayor G.T. Bynum.

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