This post is the last in a series highlighting key bills in several issues areas that we’re following. Previous posts looked at legislation affecting economic opportunity for Oklahoma families, legislation to reform our criminal justice system, and legislation affecting Oklahomans’ access to health care.
Teacher pay on the agenda, but still no consensus on funding
When OK Policy shared our policy priorities this year, we included just one policy specifically related to education: increase teacher pay. However you measure it, Oklahoma teachers are not being paid a competitive salary. Oklahoma teachers would need a $3,000 raise for their salary and benefits to match the average of our surrounding states. They would need a $7,000 raise to match Oklahoma’s cost-of-living compared to the national average. They would need a $13,000 raise to reach the national average without accounting for cost-of-living.
As a result, the loss of many of Oklahoma’s best teachers to other states or other professions has reached crisis level. For any of our state’s goals for education to be successful, we must pay a competitive wage to the skilled educators who will responsible for implementing them. Teacher pay is the necessary foundation for any other improvements we might hope for in our schools, which is why a near-consensus of Oklahomans support giving teachers a raise.
Unfortunately, as the events of last week made clear, Oklahoma lawmakers have not reached any agreement on how to pay for the raise. A special session bill to give all certified teachers a $5,000 raise, HB 1030XX, has been approved by a House committee, but this bill depends on the passage of HB 1033XX to pay for it by increasing gas taxes, tobacco taxes, and taxes on the energy industry. The failure of HB 1033XX to get three-fourths majority needed for approval of tax increases mean lawmakers are once again back to the drawing board on how to raise revenues.
As charter schools show rapid growth, new attempts to regulate them
In the meantime, a range of bills filed for regular session reveal lawmakers’ other priorities on education policy this year. One issue receiving a lot of attention is the rapid growth of charter schools — especially virtual charter schools — and whether we’ve allowed this new type of school to operate with too little accountability. As Oklahoma struggles with deep under-funding of education, we may face extra risk that virtual schools will expand as a way to educate on the cheap but with worse results than traditional public schools.
For a virtual charter school to operate in Oklahoma, it must be approved by the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. However, if that approval is rejected, current law allows virtual charters to appeal the decision to the State Board of Education. SB 1436 would take away that ability to appeal a denial. To date, the Virtual Charter School Board has only denied one virtual charter over a pattern of violations including “inadequate financial reporting, repeatedly violating the state’s Open Meeting Act and lacking appropriate training for some personnel.” That denial was not overturned, although it’s not unprecedented for the State Board of Education to do so. Twice last year, they overruled a local school board to approve a brick-and-mortar charter school in their district. Another bill (HB 3446) would take away the State Board’s ability to override those local decisions.
There is another concern with virtual charters; all of them currently operation in Oklahoma are run by private companies that also operate schools in other states. This creates a risk that Oklahoma taxpayers could be effectively funding out-of-state spending by these companies. HB 3049 tries to address that by requiring any state or local funds sent to a virtual charter to be kept in a separate account and not mixed with funds from another state.
A couple of bills (SB 985 and SB 990) require virtual charters to do more reporting of their graduation and grade promotion rates and impose sanctions if they fall too far below statewide graduation rates. One national study found that the four-year graduation rate for virtual schools was just 40.6 percent – barely half the average for the nation as a whole (81.0 percent).
Attempts to expand school vouchers already faltering, but ‘backdoor voucher’ moving forward
Last year a controversial bill to make private school vouchers available to all Oklahoma students was pulled from consideration when the author, Sen. Rob Standridge, felt like it did not have the votes to pass. At the time, Standridge expressed hope that he could revive the idea this year. However, a more modest expansion of school vouchers to homeless students or students being treated for mental illness or substance abuse issues (SB 981) has already been voted down by the Senate Education Committee.
Another bill (HB 3537) threatens to divert public funding to private schools in a new way. This bill would increase the annual cap for how much the state can give out in tax credits for donations to private schools and educational non-profits to $15 million annually, from the current $5 million, and it would automatically increase that cap each year that the credit is used by at least 85 percent of the cap. The current tax credit pays back out of state funds as much as 75 percent of what individuals or corporations donate to private schools. and when combined with other state and federal tax deductions, some “donors” can actually make a profit from their contribution.
HB 3537 could potentially allow this “backdoor voucher” to grow much more expensive over time. A similar program in Arizona went from costing just $4.5 million per year when it was created in 1997 to more than $140 million per year today, and most of these funds are not benefiting special-needs or low-income students. Instead, taxpayers are increasingly subsidizing private schools and “administrative costs” for the scholarship granting organizations.
School lunch reforms can make sure food insecurity doesn’t distract kids from learning
As the Regional Food Bank’s Effie Craven explained last week on our blog, “lunch shaming” of students with unpaid school meal debt is a real problem in Oklahoma:
Students in the Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District used to have their hands stamped it they had a negative balance of more than $5. Middle school students in Tulsa Public Schools were given half a cheese sandwich and water if they owed more than $8.40, and students in some school districts have gone through the lunch line only to reach the cashier at the end and have their meal thrown away because they owed money.
SB 1104 would put an end to these humiliating practices and make sure that all students have what they need to access school meals and keep their focus on learning. At the local level, we’ll keep pushing for more schools and districts to sign up for community eligibility that offers free meals to all kids.