Monday, August 27, 2018

OCPA column: Better teacher pay

Better teacher pay
by Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA)

How many teachers can be hired with a school superintendent’s compensation?

This isn’t a riddle. It’s data relevant to the school shutdowns of 2018 when educators went on strike in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

In Oklahoma City Public Schools, 4.8 teaching positions could be funded with the compensation going to the superintendent. And this doesn’t include all of the other management and middle-management positions in the district.

In Tulsa Public Schools, the one salary would pay for seven teaching positions. In Union Public Schools, it’s 5.5. Yukon is 5.2, Jenks is 5.1, and Enid is 4.9.

This according to data gleaned by Jonathan Butcher for a new Heritage Foundation white paper on public school funding (“Look to School District Budgets for Better Teacher Pay”).

His point is that state lawmakers – juggling competing interests ranging from Medicaid to corrections to highways – are not an ATM that can satisfy every demand of local school districts.

Local school districts can and should improve their own budgeting, prioritizing the spending that benefits students. There are savings to be found, and not just in the area of administrative overhead.

For example, Butcher points out that OKCPS spends $2.4 million annually to maintain 1,000 empty classrooms.

“The district reports that nearly 40 percent of elementary school seats are empty and nearly one out of four seats in middle and high schools is empty – resulting in one-third of all ‘instructional space’ going unused,” he writes.

For the price of all those empty classrooms, the district could give all its teachers raises of $1,000 a year.

State Question 801, on the ballot this fall, would give local schools even more flexibility with their own funding by removing an earmark from certain dollars that require them to go only to buildings or related expenses. Of course, school buildings are important, but local districts should be able to decide whether teacher pay or new textbooks are a greater need than new bleachers or resurfacing the parking lot.

This much-needed flexibility could help prevent some dubious spending decisions. Catoosa Public Schools, for example, switched to a four-day school week and reduced staff—while the district also (thanks to building millages) bought MacBook computers for all middle- and high-school students and approved a $1.5 million press box at the high school football field.

Bottom line: Butcher is correct. “Before rushing to raise taxes and increasing taxpayers’ burdens,” he writes, “lawmakers and voters should urge districts to use resources more efficiently for the benefit of students.”

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

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