Friday, March 09, 2018

OCPA column: Reward Teachers, Rein in Bureaucrats

Reward Teachers, Rein in Bureaucrats
by OCPA President Jonathan Small

No one disputes that it’s time for a teacher pay raise. Almost all Oklahomans agree and most lawmakers voice support. Despite this, the last several legislative sessions have failed to result in a teacher pay raise.

Now unions, who have been accomplices in the diversion of more than $300 million away from teachers, are joining frustrated teachers who are threatening to strike unless the Legislature gives them a raise.

With all this internal strife, it’s no wonder that we’ve lost focus on what’s most important in public education: educating children.

In Oklahoma City Public Schools and in Tulsa Public Schools, astonishingly, in all the tested grades, at least 75 percent and 71 percent of respective students are not proficient in English and at least 81 percent and 77 percent are not proficient in math.

These numbers are startling and tragic. The use of teachers, students, and the most vulnerable as captives has dominated the last several sessions and distracted us from the performance crisis.

Thankfully, there’s a sensible plan that serves as a starting point to raise teacher pay without raising taxes. It uses money that’s already sitting in an account, gaining interest, and designed to help public schools.

House Bill 3440 would pay annual cash bonuses to teachers using money from the Commissioners of Land Office (CLO). The CLO money already aids public schools, so extending the agency’s mission to fund teacher bonuses is fitting.

In 2017, the CLO’s investment portfolio reached nearly $2.4 billion. HB 3440 would direct some of the CLO money to teacher bonuses. The amount would vary based on the CLO portfolio’s performance. Administrators wouldn’t be eligible for bonuses, and the bill includes a means of growing the portfolio, plus restrictions that would protect money that’s already there for public education.

The CLO has a constitutional mandate to help fund public schools. Nothing says that the CLO money can’t go directly to teachers. As OCPA distinguished fellow Andrew Spiropoulos points out, “it is not good public policy to have ever-growing fiefdoms like the CLO or the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) whose managers believe that their operation, for all practical purposes, should not be subject to legislative control.”

Obviously, lawmakers should be able to direct how some of the CLO’s earnings are spent. Legislators need to exercise oversight over CLO officials.

It’s time to end this strife, reward teachers, and rein in bureaucrats sitting on piles of recurring cash. Doing so will help Oklahoma focus public education back to students.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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