The 2018 Legislative Session in Oklahoma will begin February 5, with the annual State of the State address by the Governor. The deadline for filing proposed legislation has passed, and thousands of new bills have been introduced. Education funding, raising revenue, and teacher pay raises will be on the agenda.
After two less-than-stellar Extraordinary Sessions called by the Governor, no new revenue has been legislated.
Oklahoma has cut funding to public schools more than any other state, and teacher pay is at the bottom of the nation. In addition to public schools, the health and mental health sectors of Oklahoma have been neglected for years.
In the House of Representatives, over 160 education bills have been filed. Teacher salary schedules, funding reforms, changes to the charter school industry, requiring more reporting for private schools who take public school vouchers are among the subjects of bills filed. There is a question, though, about the House’s intent, because 96 of the bills filed are identified as ‘shell bills’ – bills with titles, but no specific language at the time of filing. One title, for example, has been filed by seven different Representatives: Oklahoma Education Act. Higher education in the state is also a subject of several bills, and several shell bills. One, the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act, even with no specific legislative language, seems to be a bill offered by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national group “dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism,” funded by Charles and David Koch.
The Senate has filed over 80 education bills, some with the same focus as the House bills: charter oversight, teacher pay among others. There are also bills to consolidate administrative services for certain school districts and to assist in consolidation. Reading titles of bills suggests two-year colleges will be a target of Senate investigation.
The Session is beginning as support for a new funding plan, Step Up Oklahoma, is gaining high-profile state leaders. Governor Fallin has signed on, as have all the living former governors of the state. The plan would create funding for a teacher raise, raise Gross Production Taxes on new oil wells to 4%, instead of the 7%, on a measure that could go to a vote of the people, and includes other non-budgetary reforms.
Adding to the urgency of this session is a recent survey published by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, which recently surveyed former educators about their reasons for leaving the profession. The top reason for teachers leaving teaching or the state, not surprisingly, was teacher pay. Oklahoma is already extending emergency certificates and alternative certificates to record numbers of teachers. The need for teacher raises is not a partisan issue, as leaders in both parties understand more teachers will leave, and more students will be taught by under-prepared teachers, or be combined into larger classes.
The legislative session in Oklahoma runs from February to May. Both political parties have been in caucus through the Extraordinary Sessions trying to find revenue to relieve funding pressures for public schools. There is bipartisan support for a teacher pay raise. Other substantive issues in education will also need to be addressed.