Soaring school spending brings complaints, not improvement

In 2018, the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature approved numerous tax increases, which were quickly signed into law by the government of the day. Marie Fallin. Supporters said the tax increases would solve problems in Oklahoma schools, including a shortage of teachers and poor academic performance.

Four years later, teacher expenses and compensation have increased dramatically, but so far Oklahomans are simply spending more for less. School results continue to decline, teacher shortages are growing, and the main thing the 2018 tax increases have generated for Republican lawmakers is mockery from critics who say they don’t care about education, as happened in a recent debate in the House.

“For all the people who want to talk about the ‘big pay raises’ and the ‘great job’ we’re doing for our teachers, it’s unfortunate because all the cuts that have been made, we’ve never come back to this place. where we can actually get our teachers evaluated the way they should be,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa.

“We still have far below average salaries for our teachers,” said state Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater.

That drew pushback from House Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert.

“In the six years I’ve been in this corps, we’ve increased public school funding by 33 percent,” said Hilbert, R-Bristow. “I mean, how many others have received a 33% raise in the last six years? We passed the largest teacher pay increase in state history in 2018 and then passed another when Governor Stitt took office in 2019.”

Hilbert went on to note that Oklahoma’s public schools “have more money than they’ve ever had in the history of the state, and it’s not even close.”

State data and reports bolster Hilbert’s claim and undermine the criticisms leveled by Democrats.

There are three main sources of funding for public schools in Oklahoma: state funding, federal funding, and local property taxes. While Hilbert’s comments seemed to relate to public school funding, financial data shows that total school spending from all sources has increased in recent years and is significantly higher at any time since at least 2005, even after adjusting for inflation. .

In 2017, Oklahoma schools spent $6.5 billion. By 2021, total spending had jumped to $8.5 billion, an increase of nearly 31% in total spending.

And Oklahoma’s teacher salaries are now among the highest in the region based on actual purchasing power.

A report released in December by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) compared Oklahoma’s teacher salary to all other states, taking into account differences in cost of living and tax burden to determine the real purchasing power of Oklahoma teachers. LOFT officials also considered the value of teacher benefits in each state, including retirement, state-funded health benefits and Social Security benefits.

“After applying adjustments for tax burdens and cost of living, Oklahoma’s average teacher salary ranks first in the immediate area and is the only state in the surrounding area to rank higher than the national average,” Brad Ward, program evaluator for LOFT, told lawmakers on the LOFT Oversight Committee at the group’s meeting in December.

While Texas is often touted as outbidding Oklahoma for teachers, LOFT found that only 20% of Texas school districts pay effective salaries higher than the average salary in Oklahoma. More generally, LOFT’s analysis of the average salaries of 2,470 school districts in the surrounding seven-state area showed that only 31% offered a higher average salary for teachers than in Oklahoma.

LOFT officials said Oklahoma’s teacher pay levels are “very competitive both regionally and nationally.” After adjusting for the tax burden and cost-of-living differences, Oklahoma’s average teacher salary ranked highest in the immediate seven-state region and 21st highest in the nation.

Oklahoma’s public schools “have more money than they’ve ever had in the history of the state, and it’s not even close.” —Chamber Pro Tempore Speaker Kyle Hilbert

Yet increased school funding and better teacher compensation in the region have not translated into better student outcomes or an improved teaching workforce.

In all classes and subjects tested by the state, only 24% of Oklahoma public school students were proficient or better in the 2020-2021 school year. That figure was down from 34% in the 2018-19 school year, which was the first year in which tax and wage increases from the 2018 legislative session took effect.

In 2017, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association reported that 1,430 certified emergency teachers were then employed in public schools. (Certified emergency teachers are people who did not earn a college degree in education and entered the profession from other fields.)

Today, despite some of the best pay levels in the region, schools have to hire even more emergency-certified people than schools hired before pay raises.

Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, recently noted that there are now about 3,800 certified emergency teachers in Oklahoma, a 165% increase since 2017.

Pemberton also noted that the number of students seeking teaching degrees in Oklahoma has dropped 33% over the past five years. In 2016, more than 1,500 students earned teaching degrees, compared to less than 1,060 last year.

“Every year we lose more teachers with not enough students in the pipeline to fill our classrooms,” Pemberton said.

In response, he drafted legislation to provide state-funded scholarships to high school students pursuing teaching studies.

But the decline in the number of university students pursuing higher education is not new. Trends since the 2018 tax increases have only continued the pattern that predates the tax hikes and the spending boom in Oklahoma schools.

When LOFT released its teacher compensation report in December, it showed student enrollment in Oklahoma college teacher education programs fell 48% between the 2010-11 and 2019 school years. -2020, and that there had been a 25% reduction in the number of students graduating in education during this period.

During that decade, 29,574 Oklahoma teachers retired while Oklahoma colleges produced enough education graduates to fill only 46% of vacancies. The LOFT report noted that the actual gap is likely even larger because LOFT only looked at vacancies created by retirement, not those created when a teacher leaves the profession before retirement.

LOFT executive director Mike Jackson told lawmakers that increasing teachers’ salaries had little impact on this trend.

“In examining annual data on teacher attrition, LOFT found that despite the average salary of Oklahoma teachers increasing over time, the annual rate of teacher attrition continues to increase,” said said Jackson.

Few significant reforms

Many Oklahoma parents have worried about declining grades and questionable content being taught in many classrooms, but their cries have mostly fallen on deaf ears in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Oklahoma.

Many parents supported legislation introduced in the Senate that would allow public funds to follow a child to any school, public or private, giving parents greater leverage and leverage when dealing with their local schools. .

But House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, started the session by saying he would block those parent empowerment bills, saying the topic was “just not on the radar or in the minds” of House lawmakers.

“No one in the House introduced this bill,” McCall said. “I don’t expect to hear that bill this year.”

The legislation was passed in the Senate, but Senate Pro Tempore Speaker Greg Treat later reported, “The House was actively lobbying while we were on the floor to stop my members from going green.

Even minor reforms that supporters say could increase parental influence in local schools and improve service have been shelved in the House.

Research published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute in January 2020 examined data from four states, including Oklahoma, and found that the small proportion of voters participating in spring school board elections is not representative of families served by school districts, meaning fewer school boards. likely to respond to the concerns of the families served by the neighbourhood. The researchers found significant discrepancies in the racial and economic makeup of school board voters compared to district students and found that “the majority of voters in a typical school board election in each of the four states we examine is ‘unlikely’ to have children.

But a measure moving school board elections to November, which would dramatically increase public participation in the process, was also killed in the House when it was not heard on the House floor.

On April 7, House Republicans held a press conference to discuss their caucus’ priorities for the 2022 legislative session. Priorities highlighted by McCall included marijuana legislation, broadband expansion, the fight against inflation and the problems of the Tenth Amendment involving the backing of the state against the excesses of the federal government.

McCall did not mention education.

In fact, education only appeared tangentially in statements prepared by other House lawmakers at the conference. A lawmaker pointed to a law passed in 2021 that banned the teaching of certain concepts associated with critical race theory and a bill passed this year that bars boys from competing in women’s athletics. Another House lawmaker said the caucus was committed to “reinvesting in our core services: education, transportation and public safety.”

“Obviously the House of Representatives is the house closest to the people in the state of Oklahoma,” McCall said. “We represent the smallest group of constituencies between the two legislative chambers. This year is like every other year. We listen to the people of our district and prioritize the issues we think Oklahoma people are focused on. These issues continue to be individual liberties and freedoms.