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Gubernatorial candidates pledge more money for schools

Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt, left, and Drew Edmondson. [The Oklahoman archives]
Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt, left, and Drew Edmondson. [The Oklahoman archives]

Kevin Stitt admits campaigning for governor for more than a year has opened his eyes to challenges facing Oklahoma schools that he had never considered.

“What surprised me most was finding out that sometimes teachers are washing clothes for kids coming into school, and how much the kids that are hungry are being fed by teachers,” said Stitt, the Republican candidate for governor.

“A lot of those things that you think should normally be happening at home have kind of been thrown at teachers. Those are things that I didn't really realize were happening.”

The plight of Oklahoma educators has become hard to ignore, whether one is running for statewide office or simply scanning local newspaper headlines.

A decade of state education budget cuts spurred teachers to become much more vocal in recent years, sharing stories of dwindling classroom resources, paychecks that haven't kept up with neighboring states and a growing student population that has seen spikes in poverty and unstable homes, creating more need for the types of support services that have been cut at many schools.

Candidates have always been quick to talk about the importance of education.

But a two-week teacher walkout at the state Capitol in April appeared to push the topic of public schools beyond a political platitude into an issue many Oklahomans want specific answers on.

"Almost every problem we talk about fixing in Oklahoma starts with creating a strong education system," said Drew Edmondson, the Democratic nominee for governor.

More funding

Edmondson has pledged to increase the state's education budget by at least $300 million annually.

The state has budgeted $2.9 billion on public schools this fiscal year, which is an increase of nearly $500 million from last year. Most of the increase came from teacher pay raise approved by state lawmakers earlier this year.

Last school year, the state spent about $9,219 on average per student, which was the fourth-lowest out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Before the teacher walkout, Edmondson expressed support for a series of tax hikes the state Legislature passed to fund the average $6,100 teacher pay raise.

But Edmondson believes the Legislature should do more: increase taxes on oil and gas production, increase the cigarette tax and eliminate the capital gains tax deduction.

During the walkout, Stitt was still fighting a crowded field in the Republican primary and he opposed the Legislature's tax increases, claiming the teacher pay raises were possible without it.

“We have a billion dollars more in revenue coming in than we did last year,” said Stitt last week, referring to reports from the state treasury that Oklahoma collected over $1 billion more in the past year than it did a year earlier.

While the recently approved tax increases account for a small part of that new revenue, most is from a growing economy just now getting to pre-energy bust levels of a few years ago.

Stitt hasn't said how much of an education budget increase he would seek as governor, but has pledged to use some of this year's revenue increase for additional classroom resources and another teacher pay raise that puts Oklahoma at the top in the region. That would take at least $23 million, depending on pay raises approved in other states.

“I want to make sure our education is funded in a way that competes with the region," Stitt said. "But if we are going to spend more, than we have to be more transparent about how it's being spent. I will get down to the nuts and bolts of how it's used and make sure it's getting to the teachers. You have to manage this like a business, because that's how you see what's working and what's not.”

Stitt also wants a $10,000 hiring bonus to attract teachers from out of state, with the state and local districts each paying half.

Libertarian candidate Chris Powell said, “hundreds of millions of dollars" is needed in additional education funding and he wants to reevaluate the use of tax increment finance districts that use property tax growth as economic development incentives, which Powell said takes potential money away from schools.

Signs of legislative support

Each candidate has pledged to increase education spending, and there are signs the Legislature is willing to go along, even if the details of how to pay for it are not decided.

"I see that push ... for more funding in the classroom (next year)," said Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "I see a major push for additional dollars in the funding formula. You will hear ideas early in the session."

In an education plan he released this week, Stitt said he wants to end the annual accreditation process for "high-­performing schools," and instead move to a three-year renewal.

"By the time we get done with all the work that goes into the accreditation process you are talking about between 2,000 to 3,000-man hours for a district our size," said Bret Towne, superintendent of Edmond Public Schools.

Towne, who has not publicly endorsed any candidate, said he's seen more of focus on education issues this election cycle than in years past.

"Both (Edmondson and Stitt) are certainly talking about education and appear to be teacher-centric in their plans, which is great," Towne said.

Each candidate has offered additional education policy ideas, but the bulk of their education platforms relate to more funding.

As governor, Edmondson said education would be his top priority and that he would protect schools first during any future budget shortfalls.

But he doesn't plan on being a governor that allows a budget shortfall to go unaddressed.

"(Lawmakers) should have recognized earlier that we had a revenue problem, and that's not just hindsight," Edmondson said.

"They were being told we were going into a budget deficit and they let it happen anyways."

Edmondson was referring to a series of state budget shortfalls over the last several years that, combined with growing enrollment, resulted in a decrease in per-student state funding levels.

“I wouldn't have let it happen and I definitely wouldn't have let our schools suffer like they have.”

Related Photos
<p>Kevin Stitt</p>

Kevin Stitt

<figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Kevin Stitt " title=" Kevin Stitt "><figcaption> Kevin Stitt </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Drew Edmondson " title=" Drew Edmondson "><figcaption> Drew Edmondson </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt, left, and Drew Edmondson. [The Oklahoman archives]" title="Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt, left, and Drew Edmondson. [The Oklahoman archives]"><figcaption>Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt, left, and Drew Edmondson. [The Oklahoman archives]</figcaption></figure>
Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›