The Oklahoma Legislature had an April 1 deadline to determine education funding for the next fiscal year.
That deadline came and went: no education budget.
That’s fairly common — education is such a significant part of the state’s overall budget that some lawmakers argue it’s almost impossible to hit that deadline — but it also reflects a divide at the Capitol on how much of the state’s new revenue should be appropriated to common education, and where those dollars should go.
The teacher walkout, which was in its second week this time a year ago, changed the way legislators talk about education funding — Oklahomans sent 58 new legislators to the Capitol this session, and new Gov. Kevin Stitt announced a $1,200 teacher pay increase was one of his top priorities. But it’s unclear how much of a funding increase common education will receive, and lawmakers are split on whether that money should go directly to teachers or be added to the formula the state uses to dole out money to school districts.
“I think every caucus in the building has expressed that education is their number one priority; the difference is the level of funding, and what we want to do with that money,” Rep. Emily Virgin, the House minority leader, said. “Our position is that we need to do a teacher pay raise, a support staff pay raise, and we need to put money into the funding formula.”
Stitt has made it clear that while the state has approximately $570 million of budget surplus to appropriate, legislators do not have a “blank check” to write. Some $200 million of that has already been obligated, and Stitt wants much of the surplus to go to the state’s so-called Rainy Day Fund.
“I’ve requested an additional $250 million be spent on education,” Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) said. “That probably will need to include money for higher education. My personal preference is to have it go into the formula, with an agreement from the schools that they will use some of that for salaries. I’ve also asked for money to be dedicated to alternative education, which Norman does a fantastic job of.
“If the budget didn’t give a significant amount of money to common education, I would vote ‘no.’”
Virgin added that while teachers have indicated they would rather see more money go into the classroom than receive a second pay raise, both are important.
“In our opinion, we can do both,” she said. “A teacher pay raise isn’t just about the teachers who are in the classroom; it’s also about recruiting teachers and making sure they don’t leave for other states.”
Ginger Tinney, the executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators, said reducing class sizes and increasing support staff pay should be priorities for legislators.
“We know reduced class sizes increase teacher and student morale and result in better performance among students. Support staff also need a pay increase,” she said. “They support students and teachers in the classroom, and we need to make sure they are earning a livable wage. Classroom safety is also an issue and needs to be a priority for the legislators.”
Standridge believes the Legislature will have the budget finished by the middle of May, in large part due to Stitt’s leadership.
“The way in which he’s led so far this year has allowed the Legislature to do a responsible budget,” he said. “The education piece will be critical: that’s why I’ve called for half of the surplus [to be spent on education].”
Tinney made it clear that even with a funding increase for the next fiscal year, education advocates believe the state still has a long way to go.
“With over $500 million in surplus funds available, common education is receiving a sizable amount; however, it is not enough,” she said. “It is a step in the right direction, but it will not fix all our problems. Legislators need to appropriate money to fund competitive teacher salaries, smaller class sizes and more funding through the formula.”