Friday, November 01, 2019

Small: 'The Mystery of the Missing Teacher Raises'


An education mystery
By Jonathan Small

If the Oklahoma Department of Education’s new $3.29 billion state-appropriation request were transformed into a book for young readers, the title might be “The Mystery of the Missing Teacher Raises.”

Why? Because the budget plan is being sold based on comparisons that make hundreds of millions in teacher pay raises disappear.

Over the last two legislative sessions, lawmakers have increased K-12 school appropriations by 20 percent, funneling $638 million more into the system, boosting teacher pay by a combined total average of more than $7,000 apiece, and devoting millions more to classroom funding.

That spending goes missing in comparisons put out by the Department of Education to defend its new state appropriation request. The proposed school budget would add $219 million in new spending and is touted as raising state-appropriated per-pupil funding to $3,275. That matches a per-pupil figure last achieved in 2009.

But the department’s per-pupil estimate for the 2020 budget year does not account for the funding provided for teacher pay raises over the last two years. Why not? When those pay raises passed, they were touted as a big step. Now they’re relegated to a footnote.

And that’s not all. The department’s budget emphasizes a program to incentivize people to become school counselors, including 526 certified counselors now working as teachers. If Oklahoma had a surplus of teachers, that might not be alarming. But it doesn’t, as Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister noted earlier this year. She wrote that Oklahoma “remains in a severe teacher shortage, even after back-to-back teacher pay increases averaging $7,300 a year and an unprecedented infusion of $75 million into the funding formula signed into law last May.”

While the teaching workforce increased by 1,100 last year, the number of emergency certified teachers increased more than 1,000. You may recall one argument for raising teacher pay was that the state was over-reliant on emergency certified teachers and needed to attract more traditionally trained teachers back to the classroom.

Now it seems the Department of Education thinks counselors are more important than traditionally certified teachers. And this shift is occurring against a backdrop of dispiriting academic outcomes. Student achievement on state tests was lower in 2019 than in 2017, despite the subsequent huge increase in school spending.

Oklahomans deserve a plan to improve those outcomes and address workforce needs. Instead, it appears agency officials simply want to change the conversation. But this is no time to change direction.

If the past two years’ efforts are not achieving the results expected, then it would be better to admit so forthrightly and offer a new plan to achieve those still-unattained goals.

A children’s mystery book can provide a few afternoons of diversion. But what Oklahoma needs is an education plan that will improve lives for years to come.

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

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