State Democrats, Republicans wrestle over education

Oklahoma City- Senate Democrats announced a bold $200 million education plan that includes a $3,000 across-the-board salary increase for Oklahoma 's public schools teachers.

The plan was presented by Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan, Appropriations Sub-Committee on Education Chairman Stratton Taylor and Senate Education Committee Chairman Susan Paddack in a State Capitol Press Conference.

In addition to the largest teacher pay increase in seven years, the Democrats' proposal includes:

F Quality Instruction Pay for the state's best educators;

F An increase in funding for early childhood programs for children with special needs;

F Up to $15 million in funding for an innovative pilot program for additional early childhood programs;

F And additional monies to be placed in the school funding formula.

 “This proposal accelerates the work we have done in the last two years to improve the education system in Oklahoma . It's more than just taking the next step toward reaching the regional average. It's time for public schools in Oklahoma to take a giant leap forward and that's what we're proposing with this plan,” said Morgan, D-Stillwater.

   Oklahoma began an effort two years ago to raise teacher salaries to the regional average. Senate Democrats said Tuesday that effort needs a substantial boost.

    “It's overdue, and if we are ever going to have a chance to reach the regional average this program must be adopted, and I call on Democrats and Republicans to embrace the $3000 across-the-board salary increase so it will be a bipartisan program,” said Taylor, D-Claremore.

    Morgan noted that Oklahoma has been engaged in 15 years of classroom reforms, beginning with the passage of House Bill 1017. A national study released last week rated Oklahoma above the national average for holding schools accountable for their performance.

The study ranked Oklahoma 's teachers among the nation's best, but the Senate Democrats noted that teacher pay in Oklahoma is among the worst in the country. Increasing teacher salaries is an important element in improving the state's education system, the Senators said.

The Democrats' plan will also reward Oklahoma 's best trained and most qualified teachers with Quality Instruction Pay.

The plan calls for increasing the amount paid to teachers who pass the rigorous national board certification tests each year from $5000 to $7500 in Fiscal Year 2006.  In Fiscal Year 2007, the bonus would increase to $10,000.

“We want to reward those teachers who are nationally board certified and this plan for merit pay is an objective criteria for measuring,” said Senator Taylor, Senate President Pro Tempore Emeritus.

 The plan also calls for a pilot program of Quality Instruction Pay for educators similar to the one Denver voters adopted in November.

Early childhood education would receive up to $15 million in additional funding that would be matched dollar for dollar by private funds in an innovative pilot program.

“Study after study shows that if you want to make a difference in children from high risk homes, you do it in the early years,” Paddack said.  “If we really are serious about attacking some of our greatest social problems, we have to do it in the early years when children are in high risk homes.

Republicans respond

 State Senate Republican Leader Glenn Coffee said an education proposal by Senate Democrats calls for additional spending without an expectation for results or improved accountability.

 “Senate Republicans believe that education is and should be the top budget priority for the Oklahoma Legislature – and education should be funded first as state law requires. The Legislature should also ensure that new education spending is directed toward the classroom and results in improvements in the quality of our children's education, as Senate Republicans have proposed,” stated Coffee, R-Oklahoma City .

“Senate Democrats have proposed some expensive new ideas today, but they once again have failed to explain how their new programs will improve student learning or better prepare students for college or the workforce. Improving the quality of education for our children should be the goal of every new education program enacted by the state Legislature,” said Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Moore, a former public school teacher.

 Coffee said Senate Republicans are interested in knowing how Senate Democrats will pay for their new $200 million plan – an amount that would use up nearly two-thirds of the $314 million in new revenue the State Board of Equalization estimated the Legislature will have to spend during the upcoming legislative session.

 “Just a few weeks ago Senate Democrats bragged about how they are now fiscally responsible and how they would be cautious with the state's new budget surplus. But today we can see that the Senate Democrats' ‘spend-it-all' attitude is back – and fiscal responsibility is out the window,” Coffee said.

 Senate Republicans have identified education, public safety, and the repair of roads and bridges as their top priorities for the Oklahoma Legislature in 2006.

 In 2003, the Legislature adopted a law proposed by Republicans that requires the education budget to be passed earlier in the legislative session – the Fund Education First law.

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