Legislature’s timid approach to a teacher raise doesn’t bode well for schools (Capitol Update)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

I watched the House floor debate on HB 1114 by Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Broken Arrow) raising the minimum salary schedule for Oklahoma teachers by $6,000 over the next 3 years. The raises would be $1000 next year followed by $2000 and $3000 respectively in the next two years. The bill contained no funding, but Rep. Rogers said funding would be considered by separate measures later in the session.

It was gratifying to listen to all the debaters-for and against-recognize both that teachers should be paid more money and that operational expenses for courses, textbooks, technology, and many other aspects of funding for schools also needs more money. Those who debated against the bill did not debate against the need for teacher raises but against passing a bill only for teacher raises and with no funding.

Despite Rep. Rogers’ obvious sincerity in bringing the measure, the bill’s timid approach does not bode well for public schools in this session. Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz has already said that passing the bill without having the state budget gap closed would give teachers a “false hope” of receiving raises. Frankly, after eight years of decreased education funding, $1,000 is not much of a raise, and $52 million is not much of a start on a $312 million pay raise commitment — especially when the budget already has a $748 million shortfall.

The Senate says its approach will be to plug the revenue gap first, then consider a teacher pay raise in this year. If they can’t get that done, they’ll pass a teacher pay raise “framework.” The Senate approach is more straightforward, but it’s not more encouraging for education supporters. The Legislature in the past several sessions has developed the habit of waiting until the end of session to even introduce bills related to the budget. Leadership tries to get everything worked out behind closed doors then spring the budget in the last few days of session, including revenue and spending, vote on it and adjourn.

The obvious strategy is to prevent legislators from having to make “bad” political votes unless the measures are assured of passage. But this strategy deprives the process of test votes as measures move along, but before the bills are in final form. Earlier votes would let members take a chance on a difficult vote earlier in session and then go home, listen, and learn where their constituents stand. They might be surprised to learn that people are tired of schools on the cheap and are willing to kick in their share to make them better. If not, when the final bill comes back at the end of session they can vote against it. This process bears a little more political risk, but at least it has a chance of success. Bringing a new revenue “deal” out of the back room for the first time at the end of session hasn’t worked so far.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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