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School funding promise draws cautious optimism from teachers

Alberto Morejon, Stillwater teacher and Administrator of the facebook group "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout- The Time is Now", speaks during a media conference at the Oklahoma Education Association. March 8, 2018. Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman
Alberto Morejon, Stillwater teacher and Administrator of the facebook group "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout- The Time is Now", speaks during a media conference at the Oklahoma Education Association. March 8, 2018. Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman

Following an election year largely defined by battles over education, legislative leaders say public school funding will be a priority in 2019. Teachers and school organizations plan to hold lawmakers accountable to that pledge.

"If they do what they say they're going to do, then there shouldn't be any problem," said Alberto Morejon, a Stillwater teacher who authors a 76,000-member Facebook page, which played a significant role in organizing a two-week teacher walkout in April.

Nearly every election this year included candidates promising to put more money into Oklahoma schools.

Gov.-elect Kevin Stitt, along with Democratic and Republican leaders in the Legislature, have said they expect to make a sizable increase in education spending next year, although the exact amount has yet to be determined.

"Do I think there is going to be another 20 percent increase? Probably not," said House Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, referring to last year's education budget increase, which mostly went towards a teacher pay raise.

"But if I was in common education in the state of Oklahoma I think I would feel upbeat. Education funding is a priority."

Teachers celebrated a pay raise this year, but went forward with a walkout to rally for an increase in state education funding, which, on a per-student basis, trails most states.

The walkout ended without a significant increase in education funding, but teacher union leaders said they like their chances in 2019.

However, they haven't ruled out another walkout or demonstration, especially if a significant funding increase for education has not been approved by April 1, said Katherine Bishop, vice president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

"What that looks like right now we don't know, but our members have given us that directive,” Bishop said.

Stitt: Education is a priority

The OEA's legislative agenda for next year includes a $200 million annual increase in school funding, along with another teacher pay raise at some point over the next two years.

The state Board of Education has already proposed a $440.6 million increase for next year, an increase of 17 percent, mostly directed towards reducing class sizes and hiring more school counselors.

"Our budget request reflects the needs of our public school students ... and I'm optimistic the Legislature and governor understand that need," said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who won reelection this month.

Stitt said increased education spending is a priority for him, although he has yet to name a specific funding amount.

His general election opponent, Democrat Drew Edmondson, ran on a pledge to increase education funding by at least $300 million.

Edmondson's detailed funding plan appeared to draw a lot of support from teachers, especially because he advocated for many of the tax increase proposal they rallied for during the walkout.

"Drew Edmondson was clearly the teachers' choice, but I'm pushing for teachers to give Stitt a fair chance," Morejon said.

Stitt has also said he would seek another teacher pay increase in 2019 and expressed disappointment one wasn't included in the state Education Department's budget proposal.

School districts across the state continue to express a challenge in finding enough qualified teachers and the state Board of Education has already approved more than 2,600 emergency teaching certificates this year.

"We want to make sure everybody across the nation knows that education is a priority in Oklahoma," Stitt said. "We are going to make Oklahoma a top 10 state in education."

Morejon said he liked the 'top 10' goal, but believes it will require a larger investment that he hopes to see next year.

"If he's going to follow through and make us top 10 ... and make the investment that it requires, I'll be the first one to congratulate him," Morejon. "I might even vote for him."

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 ›