In the wake of budget woes and a bleak future, Oklahoma’s education system may be receiving some needed help.
U.S. Congressman Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said Congress made strides in providing funding to schools, both through grants and through federal funds. Particularly, Cole said things like Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  and early childhood education received additional funding during the session.
“We’ve also had huge expansions, significant expansions, in early childhood,” Cole said. “Both head start and the new early childhood education grant that we devised last year and continued this year.”
Cole said that Oklahoma will be receiving more funds from federal resources in the upcoming year, but emphasized that the real problems in Oklahoma’s funding exist at home.
“Anyway you want to cut it, $9 out of every $10 for K-12 comes from local government,” he said. “So, we could do some things to make it easier and we have.
“But the federal dollars will actually be greater and the federal regulation, because of the Every Student Succeeds Act, will be much fewer … but at the end of the day, you know, it’s up to Oklahoma to do most of its K-12 education on its own.”
Cole said many of the budget woes in Oklahoma stem from problems within the state, particularly the success, or failure, of the oil industry.
“I would say the feds have made things easier, but the real crisis in funding is here,” Cole said. “And that’s nobody’s fault, I don’t blame that on anybody, but funding in Oklahoma government is a lot better at $100 a barrel of oil than it is at $40 a barrel of oil.”
Ardmore City Schools superintendent Sonny Bates echoed Cole’s thoughts, saying that schools monitor the oil and gas market closely due to its large role in funding. He said eventually he would like to see Oklahoma devise a plan to provide funding through other channels, rather than placing the  bulk of the responsibility on the energy industry.
“All of us would really like a plan where funding would be through different means,” Bates said. “Oil doesn’t have to dictate the future of our state and our schools.”
Cole said even with the increases to various funding and grants on the federal level, Oklahomans will have lots of tough decision to make in the upcoming year regarding the future of education in the state.
“The legislature’s got to make a lot of tough decisions and Oklahoman’s will make a lot of tough decisions,” Cole said. “But on the federal end we’ve actually done a pretty good job in these areas in reducing regulation and increasing funding.”

Another attempt to alleviate funding woes in the education system was through the Every Child Succeeds Act, which put a dent in schools’ costs.
“One superintendent estimated to me that Oklahoma saved about $23 million this last year by getting rid of required federal testing,” Cole said. “And letting us decide what the appropriate tests are and what we want to do.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which passed through the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 2, 2015, and was signed into law by President Barak Obama on Dec. 10, 2015, represents a major shift in education policy, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act that took effect in 2002. ESSA’s policies look to restore educational foundations, school accountability and control back to the state level.
The passing of ESSA will allowed schools to use funds, which were previously tied to testing, in other areas that help students. The Oklahoma legislatures took the passing of ESSA in stride, with House Bill 3218 eliminating End-Of-Instruction tests in schools. The number of required tests was reduced from 26 to 18 in Oklahoma, with 17 of those tests being federally required. The EOI testing alone accounted for an estimated $7.3 million state-wide each year, according to the Oklahoma State Legislature website.
“It will reduce the cost significantly,” Bates said. “One of the concerns we get from teachers and  parents is the need for more textbook money, and spending less on testing could help with that.”
Bates said it will also give them some more flexibility.
“It provides huge flexibility with graduation requirements and opens a lot of doors for schools,” he said.
The superintendent also said the changes have brought relief to districts in how they set up classes and how they prepare for the year. With many of the federal regulations changed, Bates said schools will have the ability to morph their curriculum to what’s best for their district.
“It allows the local school districts (more flexibility),” said U.S. Congressman Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma. “This is what we need. This is something both sides supported.”
One of the largest actions ESSA brought was the reduction of testing, with the frequency of testing being reduced. Bates said the changes to testing in schools will help prevent “teaching to the test” and may open up the potential for more options in schools.
“It’ll allow for more electives and more attractive electives,” Bates said. “We’ll be able to offer more of it and that’s huge.”
Bates said ESSA brings long awaited changes to the district, and brings a lot to the table in how schools will approach their curriculum. The changes should allow schools to focus on students’ weaknesses and allow testing to be dependent of growth of students, according to Bates.