By one recent ranking of the fifty states and the District of Columbia, Oklahoma’s public schools come in 48th in terms of quality, a mere three spots from the very bottom. Only Arizona, Louisiana, and New Mexico have lower-quality schools than we do. The schools in perennially last-by-every-measure Mississippi even rank five spots ahead of Oklahoma’s in quality. Arizona’s first excuse is always the number of non-citizens in their system. Texas is big and diverse, but it has its own immigration issues. Nevertheless, it manages to rank 30th, ahead of Missouri (32nd), and Arkansas (39th), but behind Oklahoma’s other neighbors Kansas (27th) and Colorado (17th).

To be sure, demographics, culture, and other issues outside of schools’ direct control play a part in the rankings. Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, and whether we want to accept it or not, they do say something about Oklahoma and its public schools, and it’s not good. Our schools were not doing what they needed to do even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Things have only gotten worse.

Since the pandemic resulted in Oklahoma’s schools closing in March 2020, Oklahoma’s public schools have, by any reasonable judgment, become intellectual wastelands. Nowhere near ready to conduct classes online last spring, most of Oklahoma’s schools – at least the large districts – simply punted the rest of the school year and dropped all but the merest pretense that there were any educational standards, much less activities.

Thus far, things are only marginally better for the 2020-21 school year. Oklahoma City’s schools had students report back to their campuses for all of a single week during the fall, on the same abbreviated schedule as online, before they were all told to stay home, for fear of an expansion in COVID-19 cases.

But the fact is that schools have not been a source of COVID-19 spread. Sweden and other European countries have demonstrated this fact. And now we have a study from the United States that shows COVID-19 spreading at a rate inside schools that can only be called minuscule, with 0.04% of students being infected at school as evidenced by contact tracing. There was apparently no transmission from students to adults in the schools.

Despite the objective evidence, school superintendents in several large Oklahoma school districts (Oklahoma City, Norman, Yukon, Mid-Del, and Mustang) have vowed to defy official guidance and err in favor of – well, it’s not caution because it’s utterly senseless in the face of facts – and force anyone who might have had contact with COVID-19 to stay away from school for ten days. No doubt, students will supposedly be expected to keep up with their lessons during such times. But let’s admit the fact that the already abysmally low academic standards in many of Oklahoma’s school districts have all but completely disappeared.

Why the paranoia? Why act in a way contrary to the facts? If the primary concern, over all other considerations, is that students be safe, why run buses? Why have sports? Why have school at all?

The fact is that there are a significant number of school teachers and other personnel who are horrified of contracting COVID, despite its fairly low morbidity rate (highly exaggerated by the press). They’re members of unions. Besides doing the bidding of what might well be a vocal minority, unions have historically been about the business of getting the highest possible compensation for the least possible amount of work. While many teachers have found themselves doing even more work and devoting more time in what is ultimately a near-failing endeavor to continue educating Oklahoma’s kids, no doubt union leaders look at it as a great victory that their members continue getting paid while rarely physically showing up at their place of employment.

Superintendents get their jobs by vote of school board members. School board members get their jobs by standing for election in February, or maybe April – well, when hardly anyone is paying attention except school district employees. Thus, between school unions’ financial and in-kind help, as well as their block votes, and the fact that school district elections have very low turnouts, school board members overwhelmingly owe their positions to school personnel union members. School board members have an incentive to represent union-affiliated school employees, more than they do parents, and way more than students. School boards hire the superintendents, so the superintendents face the same incentive.

As the 1889 Institute has pointed out, some states, including Texas, have made collective bargaining with government employees illegal, and for good reason. In the case of school boards, union members effectively hire their own bosses. Those bosses have the power to spend and to tax everyone. Consequently, collective bargaining often results in pitting government against the overall public interest rather than in its favor.

When will the Oklahoma Legislature act in the Oklahoma public’s interest and outlaw collective bargaining with public employee unions? Curious minds want to know.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at bschlomach@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.