There are two legislative plans now for funding Oklahoma common education. Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, announced and passed through the House Common Education Committee last week his $500 million funding proposal for schools. His proposal would give all teachers a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise at a cost of $150 million. He would also add $300 million for school districts, based on average daily membership, to be used for a wide range of designated purposes. However, no school district could receive more than $2 million of the funding. Finally, he would add $50 million for the Redbud School Funding Act that provides grants to poorer school districts receiving below the state average of per-student building-fund dollars from either local or state revenues.
In addition to the $500 million funding, Speaker McCall proposed a refundable tax credit that would give a $5,000 per-child tax credit to the parents of children enrolled in a private school and a $2,500 per-child credit to parents who are homeschooling their children. Cost to the state for the tax credit is said to be about $300 million, but the House fiscal impact statement made no attempt to estimate the cost because it depends on how many apply for and receive the credits. So, the House education proposal is around $800 million when combining the appropriation and the tax credit.
The Senate plan, contained in several bills by Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, calls for an appropriation of $541 million, a major part of which would go toward teacher recruitment and retention. Sen. Pugh would give teachers a pay raise totaling $241 million through the state aid formula. His plan would change the current minimum teacher salary schedule to start at $39,601 which adds $3,000 to the current minimum, $4,000 more for five to nine years of teaching, $5,000 more for 10 to 14 years of teaching, and $6,000 for at least 15 years of teaching. Pugh would also establish an Oklahoma Teacher Corps costing $15 million that would pay tuition and fees for education majors at Oklahoma higher education institutions who then would teach in Oklahoma public schools for four consecutive years.
Among other proposals by Sen. Pugh are: a proposal to improve teacher-mentorship programs at a cost of $5 million, $50 million for a grant program for schools to enhance safety features, $25 million to provide paid maternity leave to educators, and $11 million for upgrading and standardizing the State Department of Education’s data entry system and implementing the system at each public school in Oklahoma. He also proposes to change the state aid formula to drive more funding to pre-kindergarten through third grade to help reach 100 percent literacy for fourth graders. He would also increase the funding weights for special education and gifted/talented students. Pugh consulted with over 100 school administrators over the interim in developing his proposals.
There are several major differences in the House and Senate plans. Most notable is the spending of $300 million on private schools. Speaker McCall says his plan is not vouchers, but it still spends $300 million on private schools that will be unavailable to public schools. A $500 million appropriation would be a nice increase for public education, but the $300 million tax expenditure causes a tremendous, missed opportunity for Oklahoma public schools to play catch up and move toward truly well-funded public education. If that much money is available, it ought to be spent on public schools, not tax credits to attend private schools.
A Google check of private school tuitions in some well-known high schools yielded the following: Casady, $24,850; Bishop McGuinness $15,005 plus $1,195 in fees; Bishop Kelly, $9,845; Cascia Hall, $16,800; and Holland Hall, $21,449. Of course, there are less expensive private schools, at least for now until public money starts subsidizing attendance, but one could argue that the $5,000 credit is not going to help many new students go to one of these schools. The credit is most likely a gift to people already sending their children to private schools.
A couple of features of the House plan will decrease equity in school funding. First is the cap of $2 million funding for any school district from the $300 million appropriation for designated uses. This, in effect, creates a second state-aid formula that would be unequal on a per student basis because of the cap. I would expect almost immediate litigation if that were to ultimately pass. Courts allow rational disparities in school funding but it’s doubtful that a $2 million cap for no other reason than to send the money to different schools would stand.
A second equity issue is the across-the-board funding of teacher pay raises which appears to be outside the state-aid formula. Any amount of money sent to districts outside the formula, over time, will create inequities. Salary raises outside the formula is one way to do that. School district populations change all the time, and as some districts decline in enrollment the per-pupil state-aid formula takes that into account. But if money is sent for teacher salaries, whether the students are there or not, it won’t take long to start hearing about “phantom students.” And growing school districts will be deprived of the funding going for teachers in declining districts.
It’s likely all these proposals will end up serving as conversation starters. The bills may look quite different when or if they hit the governor’s desk. But it is good that the topic is money and support for public education. And notably, there is no mention of “merit” pay in either legislative plan.