This is the third in a series about education politics in Oklahoma by John Thompson, historian and retired teacher.

The Oklahoman no longer dominates Oklahoma politics as it did for generations, but it is still the biggest bear in our woods. Now that legislators and governor-elect are more inexperienced than ever, the corporate school reform-loving newspaper is aggressively pushing its privatization agenda. Since our state government is almost completely lacking in knowledge of how and why the state implemented the entire accountability-driven, charter-driven experiment at the beginning of the decade, who knows who will win the hearts and minds of newly-elected officials?

One of the most worrisome of the Oklahoman’s recent editorials praised Reason magazine’s prescription for school improvement. Reason’s diagnosis was virtually indistinguishable from that of Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd, which said that underfunded high-poverty urban schools don’t need more money as much as they need to learn from high-performing schools in the rich exurbs.

The Oklahoman then editorialized:

In 2011 and 2012, Oklahoma implemented reforms that have proven effective in Florida, including a third-grade reading law that required retention of students who were two years below grade level, and an A-F school grading system. Lawmakers have since watered down some of those reforms. Instead of backing off, Reason’s education rankings indicate Oklahoma lawmakers should double down.

The Oklahoman is still angry that moderate Republican State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister led a bipartisan effort that allowed schools to use more discretion when deciding whether to retain 3rd graders who don’t pass their reading test. For years, it has led the chorus for adopting an under-funded replica of the full Florida agenda. Fortunately, the Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer has researched the facts about our Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) law.

Palmer reports that 3rd grade is:

the only year educators are required by law to retain students who aren’t reading-proficient — it’s not the most common year for students to be retained. A review of federal data from 2011-12 to 2015-16, the latest available, found that repeating a grade is actually more common in kindergarten and first grade.

Palmer reveals “nearly 10,000 students in kindergarten through second grade were retained in the 2015-16 school year, compared to just over 2,500 in third grade.” That represents 6 percent of those three grades, and “only Mississippi retained a higher proportion of students in those early grades.”

Moreover, she finds that “the high-stakes third-grade test appears to drive many of the early retentions.”

Even sadder for poor children of color, the retention rates are worse in urban schools than in their suburbs. Palmer writes, “Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools reported similar numbers for kindergarten through second grade: 833 and 823, respectively. Moore Public Schools, on the other hand, which is about half the size of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, reported just 59 students retained.”

The Oklahoma Watch also chronicled the financial and human costs of the high stakes testing. It explains that, “In some cases, retaining a student is warranted and even beneficial, especially if their struggles are related to age or maturity, educators say. But Oklahoma’s extraordinarily high rate suggests something is out of whack.”

And “one extra year of schooling at Oklahoma’s average of $8,091 per student costs the state $80 million. Advocates say that money would be better spent on extra support for the student within their normal grade progression.”

Palmer then cites Texas A&M University research that followed nearly 800 children for 14 years. Elementary students who were held back “were almost three times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers. In that study, the most common year repeated was first grade.”

She cited another study on Florida students who were retained in third grade, and that being old for their grade didn’t reduce the likelihood the student would receive a diploma. But in contrast to the ExcelinEd lobbyists ubiquitous spin, she added “critics note the researcher in that study and others on retention works for a Harvard research center chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who came up with the retention policy and has been pushing it nationwide.”

Moreover, Florida held back 50 percent fewer students below third grade. And Florida invests more than $130 million per year for supports to improve student literacy, while Oklahoma only provided $6 million for 78,000 at-risk students in the last fiscal year.

It must be stressed that the original 3rd grade high stakes reading test, is one of two policies that were clearly repudiated by almost all Oklahoma stakeholders. I had believed it had mostly been mended, despite not being ended, and there is evidence that retentions have slowed during the Hofmeister administration. I’ve talked with many former students angered that their kids were taught by a string of temporary teachers and subs as their kids tried to avoid being retained. But that was attributable to the combination of extreme budget cuts and the overall reform package that drove teachers out of the system.

The second threat, the expansion of charter schools, has garnered pushback. Even many or most of the choice true believers have realized that it would be impossible to find more charters willing to retain more poor children of color. About the only markets left, small towns and gentrifying neighborhoods, are clearly the new targets. I don’t expect reformers to willingly back off of high stakes reading tests, but clearly their main priority will be blaming the system for failed reforms and, creating portfolios of charters in gentrifying areas, leaving district schools and pushing online charters like Epic CMO as alternative schools to the charter systems.

We’ve been winning, but we can’t back off from the battle to reclaim public education.