OKLAHOMA CITY — After months of bickering, Republicans at the statehouse on Monday said they have reached an agreement that will result in “a historic” $785 million investment in public schools.
The funding plan includes:
• $500 million in new public education funding.
• $3,000 to $6,000 teacher pay raises depending on experience.
• $125 million investment into the Redbud Fund, benefiting schools that have low or no property tax revenues.
• $150 million — or $50 million a year — for a three-year school safety improvement initiative. Each district will receive about $96,000.
• $10 million — or about $3.3 million annually — for a three-year reading specialist pilot program.
• Six weeks of paid maternity leave for teachers.
• A shift in school funding aimed at helping rural districts with increased transportation costs and districts that have large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.
The plan, which still needs to pass both chambers, represents a $625 million recurring investment in public schools.
Supporters said the package’s passage also will unlock a tiered voucher-like tax credit for private and homeschool parents. That plan is being held in the House pending the passage of the public school funding component.
State Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, said the historic package marks the largest single-year education funding increase in state history. He said it benefits every school, regardless of where it is located or whether it’s traditional or charter.
“It’s a great day for all Oklahoma families,” Caldwell said. “We finally got together and figured out a package that will help every single family and child in Oklahoma.”
He said teacher pay hikes were a priority for all members of the Legislature.
“I think you probably feel the mood has lightened a little bit on the Capitol today, so I think everybody’s excited,” Caldwell said.
Broader talks about tax cuts and overall state agency funding have been stalled because Republicans had been unable to finalize a comprehensive public school-funding plan amid a $1.2 billion surplus. They’ve spent months bickering over the best path forward for schools and the best use for those surplus funds.
State Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, said it’s “certainly not a perfect plan,” but that it represents a compromise after months of fighting.
“Leadership has been battling over an education package,” McEntire said. “I’m just glad it’s finally done, and it’s something I think that we all can live with.”
McEntire said the package is a “done deal” among the House and Senate leaders, but those officials still have “a lot of selling” to do within the Republican caucus over certain parts of the package, like six-weeks’ paid maternity leave.
State Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Clinton, said it really isn’t an option for lawmakers to go home with nothing to show. Session ends in less than two weeks.
“One of my superintendents probably said it best, that it would be criminal if we left with this much in our coffers, this much of a budget overage, [and] we go home without giving those teachers the pay raise that they need,” Moore said. “And really, this is more than just a teacher pay raise. This is a huge investment in every school, every student, every teacher, every parent.”
Moore said the investment indicates how highly legislators “respect and value our educators” and that they’re trying to do everything they can to support them.
House and Senate Democrats said, though, that they hadn’t even seen the package ahead of its public unveiling Monday afternoon by Republicans.
“What I do know is that as long as vouchers are tied to this historic investment, it really undercuts what we’re able to accomplish in education,” said State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City.
She said while she believes in parents being able to choose where to educate their children, 95% have chosen their local public schools. There also are a lot of concerns about transparency, misuse of taxpayer funds and administration of the program, Hicks said.
State Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater, said the lack of transparency behind the plan is not good for the urban constituents Democrats represent. She said Democrats also know nothing about the broader state budget talks, despite a May 26 deadline to pass a balanced budget.
“(The attention), it’s all been on this issue,” Ranson said. “Once that’s opened up, it’s all going to happen at once. So how is that transparent for the people of Oklahoma? This has basically taken up all the oxygen in the room, and there’ll be (other) issues that are going to be of concern for Oklahomans.”
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