Education

Oklahoma Teachers Should Not Count On Raises From GOP

The incoming Republican House Speaker Charles McCall says he’s behind a plan to raise public school teacher salaries by $6,000 over three years, but there’s a major flaw in the proposal.

Here’s the basic flaw: Where is the money going to come from given that the state faces, as of now, a nearly $900 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year? The shortfall could grow in size as well, and I predict it will, unless President-elect Donald Trump and his Russian allies create so much world turmoil, fossil fuel prices take a dramatic jump. But then that just means more earthquakes for Oklahoma.

My argument is, at least for now, that this is just another Republican ruse to make people believe they’re concerned about Oklahoma’s brain drain when they’re getting just what they really want through GOP tax cuts for rich people, which is to drain government funding, especially for education, as much as possible. This way they can declare, along with their fanatical and wildly unpredictable leader Trump, a general failure of government while lying about their true intentions when they suggest raises for educators.

The real Republican position was recently expressed in an editorial in The Oklahoman, which argued “lawmakers should demand greater focus on cost savings and genuine benefit from expenditures” when it comes to requests for additional funding.

The editorial, for example, noted that the Oklahoma Department of Education has asked for a “$221 million increase, plus another $282 million increase for teacher pay raises . . .”, which is a pittance compared to how much school funding has been cut here since 2008 and how low teacher salaries are in Oklahoma. Then the editorial quoted and essentially supported Republican state Rep. Kevin Calvey, who was critical of the education department’s leadership, which he blusters have presented:

. . . no real solutions for streamlining our education system to make it more efficient and to target student needs . . . without accountability for how those dollars are spent related to education results.

In case you need an interpreter, this means that current Republicans lawmakers here try to educate students on the cheap and then complain when the state suffers chronic problems related to the lack of funding. This a deployment of a political tactic to destroy public education, not responsible governance as the great minds of The Oklahoman editorial board want us to believe.

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Solid Plan To Increase Education Funding

Image of OU President David Boren

Finally, a prominent Oklahoma leader has come up with the barebones of what I view as a workable and perhaps revisable plan to help bolster education funding in the state.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren has proposed a ballot initiative to allow voters to raise the state’s sales tax by one cent to help increase Oklahoma’s dismal funding of education.

Boren, according to news reports, said the increase would raise $615 million a year, and that $378 million could be used to give public school teachers a $5,000 raise. Oklahoma has some of the lowest average teacher salaries in the country and currently faces a major teacher shortage because of it. The state also ranks 49th in the nation in per pupil funding.

Boren said the additional money, among other things, would go to fund incentive pay for teachers, an issue pushed by conservatives. Some of the money would also go to higher education to limit tuition increases.

One of the first and somewhat negative reactions to the proposal came from the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa progressive think tank, which argues the tax, if voted into law, would hurt lower income people the most because sales taxes, as we all know, are regressive. OKPolicy did note it supported more funding for education overall, but, as usual, it seems to want to have it both ways when it comes to funding education. It’s for it, but, well, there doesn’t seem any way to get it done. Parse through the lines in this final sentence of its statement about the proposal:

Oklahomans urgently need real tax reform to create a tax system that does not put the greatest burden on those who can least afford it and that collects enough to meet critical needs of Oklahoma families — not just for education but also health care, safe communities, and other public services to ensure a stable economy and strong quality of life.

Translation: We’re probably not going to support this proposal and we also know there’s not one iota of chance for “real tax reform” right now in our conservative-dominated state government. Also, education is important, but, well, is it AS important as, say, health care?

Watch for OKPolicy and the right-wing Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs to join together again to defeat another education funding proposal if Boren goes forward with it.

It seems to me that one obvious solution to the “regressive issue” when it comes to the sales tax increase would be to make it more progressive by exempting lower-income and middle-class income people from all or some of the “education tax” through income-tax credits or rebates. This might complicate the language on the petition drive to put the measure on the ballot, but at least it’s worth considering.

As it stands now, the state faces what will likely be a $1 billion shortfall next fiscal year, and state agency heads are getting informed that they could face cuts in their budgets. This complicates the ballot initiative even further.

If Boren and any type of coalition he helps to put together go forward with the proposal, those circulating the petition would need to collect 65,987 signatures in a 90-day period for the November 2016 ballot.

Sure, I agree that the tax proposal, as it stands, is regressive, but that can be fixed with credits and rebates in the tax code, and, it’s only ONE CENT. Even if the proposal stands as is, I would support it and urge other voters to do the same. We shouldn’t forget that lower-income people would benefit by better schools. This could enable them to raise their incomes. It goes together.

If this is what it takes to improve education funding, then we need to get behind it. We face a real emergency here when it comes to education funding. Let’s do something about it.

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Public Education Crisis Grows In Oklahoma

Teachers on Flickr The Commons

The Oklahoma teacher shortage crisis continues to worsen, and its impact on current students can’t be underestimated or presented in overly hyperbolic language.

State leaders, mostly Republican legislators and Gov. Mary Fallin, have failed to respond appropriately to the emergency by raising teachers’ salaries and enhancing their working conditions. In fact, Fallin and most of her fellow Republican leaders’ intention seems to be to do as much damage to our public schools as possible in order to privatize our basic educational system and turn taxpayer money over to private schools and companies.

Let’s be clear: All current public school students, even in the richest school districts, are affected by this leadership failure. It means fewer teachers and overcrowded classes. It means fewer programs. Overall, it tells the nation Oklahoma leaders care pretty much less if not the least of all about education than most states in the country.

The Oklahoma State Schools Board Association recently released the grim results of a survey of school districts it conducted during the first two weeks of August. The districts represent 80 percent of the state’s public school population. A news release from the organization about the survey first notes that there are about 1,000 teaching vacancies in the state and that 600 teaching positions have been eliminated since last year.

Here are the “highlights” of the survey:

About 75% of school leaders say hiring teachers was more difficult this year compared to last year.

The shortages are widespread, regardless of the district’s size and location and the subject area.

About 60 percent of districts anticipate needing to seek emergency teaching certifications to fill vacancies.

Almost half of districts expect to increase class sizes.

About one-third of school leaders said their schools likely would offer fewer courses this school year.
Special education, elementary, high school science, high school math and middle school math are the most difficult teaching positions to fill.

School leaders are deeply worried that the overall quality of teaching applicants is having a detrimental impact on student achievement.

Many newly hired teachers need extensive support and training, which increases pressure on school leaders who have limited time and resources with which to provide support.

Oklahomans need to know these basic facts as well: (1) The state has cut public education more than any other state since the economic downturn in 2008. (2) It has the lowest per pupil spending average than all of its neighboring states and in the region. (3) It has ranked in the bottom five—sometimes as low as 49th—for average teacher salaries for years.

It’s a no-brainer that Oklahoma’s anti-education mentality, combined with the current Republican dominance of state government, lead to increased social problems, high incarceration rates and low college graduation rates here. These are issues that affect us all in one way or another.

Only a seismic shift in the political milieu here will change things, and, frankly, that seems difficult to imagine. Meanwhile, mediocrity only creates more mediocrity. It’s a cycle that spins out of control for now. Sure, the state has some high-achieving students and schools, but it needs more, along with a renewed commitment to students at risk.

Our state leaders seem intent on starving our schools of needed funding and obsessively pressing a high-stakes testing agenda so they can claim public education is failing here. This way they can try to break teacher unions and turn tax dollars over to private schools or companies. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. This is a GOP political agenda.

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