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.
Twenty-eight years ago, amidst a crisis in the Oklahoma economy, parents, teachers, business leaders and others told Oklahoma legislators that to make Oklahoma’s future better they would need to make Oklahoma’s schools better. Education experts told legislators to make schools better it would take good teachers teaching children who are ready to learn in smaller classes with the latest textbooks and technology.
In response, to weed out weak teachers, legislators changed teacher tenure, giving school boards authority to terminate teacher contracts based on incompetency. Before that contracts could be terminated for some form of wrongdoing. Because teachers did not trust school boards to fairly evaluate teacher competency, teachers were allowed to fully appeal their cases in court. This is called “trial de novo.” Legislators also mandated a $9,000 increase in the minimum salary schedule over 5 years, the equivalent of $17,200 today.
To help children be ready to learn, full-day kindergarten was mandated and a voluntary 4-year old program was started. The funding formula was changed to drive more funding to schools with the neediest children. To address class size, legislators set statutory limits on the number of children in classes from kindergarten through high school. Legislators also increased funding for new textbooks and technology.
This was accomplished in HB 1017 that also included increases in the sales, corporate, and personal income taxes which were dedicated to pay for the school improvements. The bill and emergency clause was passed with 2/3rds vote in the House and Senate and signed by Governor Henry Bellmon. Anti-tax forces circulated SQ 639 to repeal HB 1017 and SQ 640 requiring a 75 percent vote for the legislature to increase taxes in the future. SQ 639 failed and SQ 640 passed.
Since these events a generation ago, teachers lost the benefit of their bargain with “trial de novo.” It was felt to be an obstacle to getting rid of incompetent teachers. To say teacher salaries have lagged is an understatement. Teachers are voting with their feet. Funding for the 4-year old program was added to the school funding formula, giving Oklahoma a national reputation in early childhood education. Class size requirements have been repealed or ignored. Inadequate funding for textbooks and technology has resulted in poorly resourced classrooms.
Add to all that a generational drug epidemic, mass incarceration, and gross inequality in income and opportunity, and you have some measure of the problem facing Oklahoma legislators and the governor. To improve schools, you still need good teachers teaching children who are ready to learn in smaller classes with the latest textbooks and technology. You’re not going to get that simply with a $1,000 or even a $3,000 or $5,000 teacher pay raise. It’s going to take teachers who feel supported, children with mental and behavioral health services available as needed, smaller classes, and modern textbooks and equipment. And we’re going to have to quit putting so many of their parents in prison. The problem covers every state agency from education to health to corrections and juvenile justice.
Answers will be messy and controversial and the results will be a compromise, as they were a generation ago. The solution cannot be “agreed upon” behind closed doors before any political risks are taken. For Oklahoma to avoid becoming a third world state it’s going to take, well, leadership.