A Republican senator said he had a “moral obligation” to propose a complicated, six-part plan to give Oklahoma teachers a $10,000 pay raise without a tax increase, despite the state facing a $900 million budget shortfall.
The $400 million proposal, released Thursday by Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, instead would seek funding from overhauling tax breaks, by consolidating the number of school districts and by diverting a portion of future budget growth to education.
The proposal includes two elements that would go to voters for approval.
One is a state question requiring the Legislature to find $200 million in savings by reforming tax credits, rebates, exemptions and deductions. Two years of future tax breaks would automatically be canceled if the Legislature failed to act.
The second element, a voter-approved question, would require the state to consolidate the number of school districts to at least 200.
The other four elements are bills that would need to pass the Legislature to divert money toward teacher raises.
A report released last year by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers unions, found Oklahoma had the fourth-lowest average teacher salary in the nation during the 2013-2014 school year.
The report found the average salary in Oklahoma was $44,549, including benefits. The national average was $57,379.
The last time Oklahoma teachers got a pay raise to their salary schedule was in 2008. The salary schedule establishes the minimum a district may pay a teacher based on years of experience and highest degree obtained.
University of Oklahoma President David Boren is pushing a separate plan to boost education funding that involves a penny sales tax; if enough signatures are collected, the proposal would go before voters in November.
That proposal could raise $615 million a year, with 69.5 percent of it going to K-12 education. Most of the money would be earmarked for a $5,000 pay raise for teachers. The remainder would go to higher education and career tech. Holt’s plan does not include any funding for higher education.
Oklahoma Watch talked to Holt about his proposal:
Q: There are a lot of moving parts in your proposal. Are you confident you can get all of these elements through the Legislature or a public vote?
Holt: Anything worth doing is hard, and giving teachers a pay raise is worth doing. The thing I have in my favor is the necessity to do this. We have to increase teacher pay if we want to be competitive with other states in hiring teachers.
With a $900 million budget shortfall, we won’t be able to immediately give teachers a pay raise, but we can get started. It’s going to take several years to do all of this, and that’s why I am asking for a $10,000 raise. A $5,000 raise is not enough, and teachers may need a $15,000 raise to be competitive with the salaries in other states by the time we do all of this.
There could be better plans out there, but this is the best plan I have.
Q: Did you speak with the governor, the Education Department or House and Senate leadership before unveiling your plan?
I didn’t need to talk to education folks because there is no education policy in here. This needed expertise in politics, which I have.
I didn’t think it was imperative to work with a bunch of people because this is a complicated plan. I didn’t want people saying it couldn’t be done or saying we should wait to do this later. Instead, I wanted to unveil a plan now and see if anyone else can come up with something better.
Leadership is not waiting to have a consensus. Good leadership is coming up with a bold plan and then seeing if you can come to a consensus.
Q: Can the Legislature withstand the lobbying against reforming tax breaks, or a potential push from the public against school consolidation?
Holt: We are talking about a $2 billion pot for tax breaks. I am asking for $200 million, or 10 percent. If businesses know that’s going toward teacher raises, I hope they will support it. I hope they agree this is a good cause to invest in.
Sure, they could try to block this before we can vote on it, but I am trying to break this up into multiple battles that are easier to win instead of one big fight.
With school district consolidation, we are redrawing district boundaries and reducing the number of administrative positions. We are not closing school buildings.
A community’s identity is not tied up in its superintendent – it’s tied to the school.
My school consolidation plan mirrors the national effort to reduce the number of military bases. Everyone agreed that needed to be done, but few people had the courage to make a plan to do it.
Q: Do you expect any competing bills to be filed?
Holt: I don’t know, but I sure hope so. I don’t think competition is a bad thing, and I am not saying I have a monopoly on good ideas.
If someone has a better idea to give teachers a pay raise, lets see it. If there isn’t a better idea, let’s use mine.
Q: How did you come up with this idea, and how long have you worked on it?
Holt: I spent several months during the last part of 2015 working on this.
It came to me the same way anyone gets an idea. Something would come to me in the shower or while I was driving, and later I would flesh it out. Eventually, I had six pieces that would come together to give teachers a pay raise over several years.
I also asked for ideas on Twitter. Unfortunately, a lot of people gravitated toward the easy answer, which is raising taxes. That’s not going to work in Oklahoma.
But several other people said we need to reform our state’s tax breaks, and I listened to them.