Okla. teacher rally to focus on education funding
Oklahoma City (AP) — Thousands of teachers from across Oklahoma plan to converge on the state Capitol on Monday to deliver a single message to state lawmakers: appropriate more taxpayer dollars to public education.
With state support of public education and teacher salaries among the lowest in the nation, teachers, educators and school administrators are urging lawmakers to restore funding for public education to at least levels it had reached prior to the Great Recession, when revenue shortfalls forced spending cuts to education and other public services.
Appropriations to Oklahoma's public schools are about $200 million less than in 2009 even though there are about 40,000 more public school students than there were five years ago, according to the Oklahoma Education Coalition, a consortium of education groups that helped organize the rally. About 678,000 students are enrolled in Oklahoma's public schools this year.
"We just haven't had an investment to get us back to our previous level," said Steven Crawford, executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration.
Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teacher organization, said the state is attempting to run schools in 2014 on the same amount of money provided in 2008.
"Parents are tired of larger class sizes, fewer materials. They see how larger class sizes are hurting their children's education," said Shawn Hime, former superintendent of Enid Public Schools and executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
"The key is to prioritize and insure that we have adequate funding to educate Oklahoma's students to our high expectations to compete in today's job market," Hime said.
Superintendent of Schools Janet Barresi supports the goal of increasing education funding and teacher salaries, said spokesman Phil Bacharach. In October, the Board of Education approved a budget request for the fiscal year that begins July 1 that was a $174.9 more than the current year, including an $81.4 million increase in financial support for schools.
"She believes that teachers have one of the toughest and most important jobs out there," Bacharach said.
Crawford said per-pupil spending by the state is $3,032, 49th in the nation and $243 less than was spent during the 2008-2009 academic year. In addition, teachers have not had a state-funded pay raise in seven years and salaries lag behind most of the rest of the nation.
Figures compiled by the National Education Association indicate that the starting salary for an Oklahoma teacher is $31,606 a year when the national average is $36,141.
The average salary for an Oklahoma teacher is $43,846 — the lowest in the seven-state region that includes Kansas, with an average teacher salary of $46,401; Texas, where the average salary is $47,157; and Arkansas, which has an average of $47,472, according to the NEA.
"There's no chance for teachers to have additional salaries if we don't get some kind of revenue," Crawford said. "Because of that we're losing them and we're sure not attracting the best and brightest."
Classroom teachers say financial support for public education in Oklahoma has consequences for their students.
"How much damage are we going to do to these students by not having what they need?" said Gretchen Gibson, a special education teacher at Jenks Public Schools. "Education is not the go-to place to cut. I don't think they understand the impact."
Audrey Stadler, an eighth-grade earth science teacher at Jenks, said funding issues require her to purchase her own classroom supplies like rulers, glue and paint. Stadler's classroom includes a library of almost 100 books that she said she paid for herself.
"We do a lot of labs. We do a lot of hands-on things. And a lot of it comes out of my pocket," she said. "It's definitely something that isn't provided for in our school's budget."
Education groups have thrown their support behind House-passed legislation that would appropriate $57.5 million a year in additional revenue for public education when state revenue growth is at least 1 percent until new revenue totals $575 million. The measure is pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In a statement, Gov. Mary Fallin said she also supports more funding for public education. Last year Fallin signed a budget bill that included $120 million in new education money. She has proposed another $50 million increase for the upcoming year despite a $188 million budget shortfall that will lead to spending cuts at most agencies.
"Providing adequate funding is vital to increasing educational attainment and student performance in Oklahoma," Fallin said. "Equally important are the careful implementation and funding of education reforms focusing on accountability in schools, child literacy and the creation of more rigorous standards in the classroom."
by Tim Talley, Associated Press
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The Gayly – March 30, 2014 @ 1:50pm