Monday, April 16, 2018

OCPA column: Turf over Textbooks?

Turf over textbooks?
By OCPA president Jonathan Small

In 2018, Oklahomans will see the largest teacher pay raise in state history, dramatic tax increases, and record total funding for education. Since March 29, $610 million in new tax increases and annual revenues have become law. Since the 2015 legislative session, more than $1 billion in new tax increases and annual revenues have become law.

Now that we have revenue, let’s not miss the opportunity for transformative reforms.

Clearly, Oklahoma’s teachers needed a substantial raise. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs offered several proposals to increase teacher pay, including prioritizing existing funds and even offering a revenue plan.

Many Oklahomans were understandably confused as teachers marched to the state Capitol to ask for more government funding, even while in at least two central Oklahoma school districts, construction was surging ahead on lavish new multimillion-dollar football stadiums.

Patrons in Owasso were also baffled when they learned that the ragged textbooks pictured in an infamous photo were not in fact being used in class. That was actually fake news, and it got extensive national media coverage.

Owasso voters, in fact, approved a bond issue to include $2 million for textbooks and materials. Incredibly, though, they also approved bonds to spend more than twice as much ($5.45 million) on artificial turf.

And down in Norman, the teachers got their raise, and every middle and high school student in the district will get a new laptop thanks to $16 million in bond funds.

Oklahoma raised teacher pay and invested in education. Now, it’s time for local leaders and school boards to prioritize spending.

Do we really need 500-plus school districts with well-paid superintendents? Why would taxpayers give nearly $250,000 annually to a superintendent in whose district (Union) the majority of students lack proficiency in every subject?

Is there a better way to manage bond and operational funds to make sure priorities are met? When large school districts, like Tulsa Public Schools, issue more than $12 million for textbooks but then suggest they don’t have enough revenue, it undermines the true and legitimate needs of other schools.

What about staffing levels? As economist Benjamin Scafidi noted, between 1992 and 2015, enrollment in Oklahoma schools rose by 17 percent, teacher staffing went up by 12 percent, and non-teacher staffing ballooned by 36 percent. Can’t we redirect some of that operational diversion to other needs?

Legislators raised taxes by more than half a billion dollars to ensure teachers received the pay raise they needed. Now it’s time to enact reforms that will help modernize our system and empower our teachers.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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