Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister is meeting with education leaders from the Biden administration and other states, discussing the most effective and efficient ways to close learning gaps caused by the pandemic and, more generally, charting the best course forward for public education.
Congress allocated hundreds of billions of dollars in three separate COVID relief packages, specifically to address the needs of schools and their students related to the pandemic. Oklahoma received approximately $2.3 billion.
"There’s a great amount of federal funds that have been given by Congress to education in all the states," Superintendent Hofmeister said Monday in an interview, "and now is the time where we want to see effective use of those funds in closing learning gaps, but also reimagining education."
Hofmeister, who is running for governor, said with the federal funding that's available and the better understanding of the education system's shortcomings -- laid bare by the pandemic -- education leaders have, "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to, not only put new paint on education, but really work at shoring up the foundation."
In Oklahoma, she believes, that process begins with solving the state's teacher shortage, which was bad enough before the pandemic and now only worse.
"Our children need to have reading specialists, they need to have librarians, school counselors -- all of these important team members to support student learning," Hofmeister explained, "and instead teachers were bearing more and more of that load."
In an effort to shift some of the load away from teachers, as well as to improve student outcomes, the State Department of Education last summer launched the Oklahoma School Counselor Corps, to make it possible for more schools to hire counselors.
"This is why Oklahoma is being recognized on a national stage for our School Counselor Corps, our focus on mental health supports for children," Hofmeister said.
OSDE provided $35.7 million from its portion of the various COVID-19 relief bills passed by Congress in the form of grants to 181 school districts across the state to hire school counselors and school-based mental health professionals.
The program has been praised by the Council of Chief State School Officials (CCSSO). Hofmeister said President Biden's Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardonas, has generally encouraged the hiring of more counselors.
"We can’t lose children, we have got to have the manpower to make those connections, knock doors, find those children who have not re-engaged," Hofmeister stated, "and make sure they have the credits they need to graduate."