Stitt wants teacher pay raise, economy-focused government
Gov. Kevin Stitt said teachers deserve another pay raise and asked state lawmaker for the money to fund it in his first State-of-the-State address, which he also used to outline his vision for an economy-focused administration that will produce an efficient and adaptive state government.
“The government does not create wealth, only the private sector can,” said Stitt, a former CEO, speaking to lawmakers on Monday as the 57th Legislature officially began.
“In my administration, every policy decision will promote a healthy economy.”
One way to improve the economy is through a quality public school system, Stitt said, and educator salaries that attract teachers to Oklahoma schools.
Stitt's budget includes $70 million for a $1,200 teacher pay raise, which would make Oklahoma educators the highest paid in the six-state region.
His budget includes more than $20 million increase in classroom funding.
“We will invest in the classroom,” Stitt said. “But we must first continue our investment in the teacher, because it’s not programs, curriculum, or resources that students will remember. The magic happens between the student and the teacher in the classroom.”
Last year, the Legislature gave teacher’s a $6,100 average pay raise just days before educators held a two-week walkout to protest low classroom funding.
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Stitt also asked for $5 million to fund a teacher recruitment bonus program, while getting rid of the five-year teacher renewal fee.
In his speech, Stitt praised current educators for already working to improve public schools, including Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Donna Gradel.
“Donna reimagined the classroom,” Stitt said about the Broken Arrow environmental teacher. “She moved beyond the textbook by taking her classroom outside to partner with the city of Broken Arrow to clean public water and by taking the classroom to the world by developing a system to provide sustainable food sources to orphans in Kenya.”
Stitt also praised Cecilia Robinson-Woods, the superintendent of the Millwood School District in Oklahoma City, for finding new ways to recruit and retain teachers.
“Cecilia partnered with Teach for America, utilized opportunities offered under state law, and implemented a new reading program,” Stitt said.
While his budget does not include a significant classroom funding boost, Stitt said he wanted to rethink the state’s funding formula, which gives schools a fluctuating amount per student, depending on the student’s needs.
Legislative leaders have expressed an interest in adjusting the formula, but there have also been calls for more school funding.
"My number one goal is to put more money in the funding formula," said Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, who is entering his third year as the chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Stitt's budget does include additional funding for graduate medical school expenses and the children health insurance program, which had formerly been funded by the federal government.
Stitt used the programs as an example of why he is opposed to Medicaid expansion, which Democrats and some Republicans have said it is worth considering.
“The estimated $150 million price tag today for Oklahoma to expand Medicaid could leave us down the road fronting more than $1 billion when the federal government pulls back on its commitment,” Stitt said. “They’ve done it before and they will do it again.”
Stitt also proposed additional funding for criminal justice reform programs, including those that help Oklahomans dealing with drug and alcohol addiction.
Stitt pointed to an employee of his former company as an example of how a person battling addiction can turn their life around.
"Many years ago, I was introduced to Melinda who held the titles of daughter, mom, and fellow Oklahoman – but to the prison system, she was a drug offender," Stitt said. "Today, she has been an employee at Gateway (Mortgage) for more than 13 years. Her entry into the workforce was key to remaining sober and to becoming a thriving individual in our society. Melinda’s story of redemption was possible because of a community of people who stepped in, walked with her, and gave her opportunity."
Stitt also repeated his desire for control over state agency directors, which he views as an important step towards reorienting state government around a customer-focused vision.
Leaning on his background of building a national business, Stitt said he would run government more like a business, looking for ways to cut waste and audit the largest agencies, a process he wants to fund by recalling the $30 million "given to the Health Department after the agency misrepresented their financial standing to the Legislature."
Stitt said state agencies would also modernize.
"Imagine digital driver licenses that are Real ID compliant. Imagine titles available electronically. Imagine one site to obtain occupational licenses and one site to pay taxes," Stitt said. "It is time to get it done."