When Kevin Stitt hit the campaign trail in 2018, education was very much on the minds of voters. Thousands of Oklahoma teachers had descended on the state Capitol to strike, closing many schools for 10 days to draw attention to school funding needs.
The teacher walkout that spring led to major changes: an average salary increase of $6,000 for Oklahoma teachers — the first raise in nearly a decade — as well as millions in new education funding.
Our State Under Stitt
One in a series of stories looking at Gov. Kevin Stitt’s record as he runs for a second term. Previously:
And in its wake, Stitt, as a candidate for governor, promised to improve education and make Oklahoma “a top 10 state.”
Now, four years later, Oklahoma Watch is taking a look back at those promises and results. Oklahoma Watch interviewed Stitt by phone on Sept. 30. He also visited the Oklahoma Watch newsroom for an interview on Oct. 13.
His Democratic opponent for governor, Joy Hofmeister, has had a major influence on education policy as superintendent of public instruction for the past eight years.
One of Stitt’s main promises in education has been to make Oklahoma’s average teacher compensation the highest in the region.
Though National Education Association’s data shows Oklahoma is still short, Stitt claims that as a promise kept based on adjustments for cost-of-living and tax burden.
In 2018, Oklahoma’s average teachers’ salary ranked third in the region following the $6,000 boost. Stitt approved another raise in his first year in office, allocating $59 million for an average increase of $1,220.
That put Oklahoma’s average compensation for a classroom teacher at $54,096 in 2021-22, the latest available data. That includes retirement and health insurance premiums, benefits valued at about $16,900 a year — or about one-third of a teacher’s total compensation.
Oklahoma ranks fourth among surrounding states by that measure and 34th in the nation. Colorado, Texas and New Mexico reported higher teacher compensation — meaning the state lost ground under Stitt.
Stitt says he’s met his goal.
“Our numbers show we’re number one in the seven-state region, cost-of-living adjusted,” Stitt said. “That’s something we’re really proud of.”
He cites rankings from a Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency report, which adjusted teacher salaries for cost-of-living and tax burden, moving Oklahoma to 21st nationally. But that essentially ranks the “competitiveness” of teacher pay in Oklahoma.
Hofmeister, in her agency’s latest budget request, proposed a $5,000 teacher pay increase, raising the state average to just over $59,000. The state Board of Education approved the proposal and it now moves to the Legislature.
“It’s a matter of staying competitive,” she said. “We made great strides when the Legislature approved back-to-back teacher pay raises, but it is not a one-and-done process. Other states have continued to raise teacher pay.”
Teacher Recruitment and Retention
Candidate Stitt said he wanted the state to provide up to $5,000 in matching funds for signing bonuses for new and returning teachers. A statewide effort has not come to fruition, but many school districts offer bonuses.
However, Stitt approved several 2022 initiatives to address teacher recruitment and retention. He approved legislation creating the Inspired to Teach program, which gives stipends to college students who agree to teach in Oklahoma for several years. The state is spending about $17 million on the program, which got underway this summer.
And in this year’s State of the State address, Stitt announced a plan to get “our best teachers” earning over $100,000. He signed legislation creating the program under House Bill 4388, but there’s no money for it yet.
The Legislature considered two versions of the bill, approving one requiring lottery collections of at least $75 million annually before funds are available for the program. The fund won’t reach the threshold this year.
Stitt said he would have preferred the program be appropriated, or at least the cap on lottery funds lowered, so the funding would have been available sooner.
“A hundred percent, we want to fund that,” he said, adding that it’s the Legislature’s job to hammer out state spending. “It’s my job to advocate and tell them what Oklahomans need to be Top 10. But sometimes they don’t do exactly what I want.”
In 2019, Stitt said he would prioritize audits of the top 12 agencies, which includes the state Education Department. He called for that audit in September 2021. Hofmeister called it “another attack on Oklahoma’s public education system” and said school districts were already struggling to obtain normalcy amid the pandemic and the audit “couldn’t be worse timing for students, families, teachers and taxpayers.”
“A hundred percent, I will absolutely call for any audit to make sure we’re transparent with taxpayer dollars,” Stitt told Oklahoma Watch recently. “What you hope is they find nothing, that all the taxpayer dollars are spent correctly.”
He said findings from the investigative audit into Epic Charter Schools raised questions about the Education Department’s need for its own audit. The Epic findings released in 2020 revealed misuse and abuse of taxpayer dollars.
State Auditor Cindy Byrd has called it “the largest amount of reported abuse of taxpayer funds in the history of this state.”
A grand jury investigating called the school board’s cozy relationship with the management company “a system ripe for fraud” that allowed the owners to make substantial personal profit “on the backs of Oklahoma students.”
Rarely has Stitt publicly addressed those issues.
To Oklahoma Watch’s questions, Stitt said the important thing is to separate Epic the school from Epic’s management company.
“That management company is gone…so don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We have to have vendors in our state, and as soon as we find out there’s a bad vendor, we’re going to sue that vendor,” he said.
Epic Youth Services is no longer managing the school. Epic’s school board severed ties with the company after the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board moved to revoke the school’s authorization to operate. The company is suing the school for more money, and the school is countersuing.
But the type of management arrangement criticized by the grand jury is still allowed under Oklahoma law.
Stitt blames the state Education Department for Epic, claiming it was “asleep at the wheel.” Hofmeister said her efforts to hold Epic accountable were routinely blocked by the governor, including in 2020 when she recommended probation for the school, and the Stitt-appointed Board of Education rejected the move.
Hofmeister said her agency used “all legal authority to root out waste, fraud and abuse by Epic.” Unlike many other state agencies, the department does not have subpoena power, and state statute doesn’t permit the superintendent to request an investigative audit of a school. Only the governor, attorney general, senate pro tem, house speaker or the state board of education may do so.
Epic’s co-founders and chief financial officer now face criminal charges for allegedly embezzling school funds. Their arrests called into question whether the donations they made to political campaigns over the years were actually embezzled funds. Both Stitt and Hofmeister received donations from Epic-connected individuals.
Stitt’s own administration has been the focus of a scathing audit for its handling of some federal COVID-19 relief funds.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General found a lack of control and oversight that led to at least $650,000 being misspent through the governor’s Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program. Auditors recommended the U.S. Department of Education claw back those funds and examine the program for additional non-educational expenditures.
Oklahoma contracted with the Florida company ClassWallet to manage Digital Wallet and distribute $1,500 school supply grants to families earning below the poverty line.
“This is all election-year politics,” he said of the criticism over his administration’s handling of the funding.
Stitt’s appointed secretary of education, Ryan Walters, who is running for state superintendent, gave “blanket approval” for families to buy any items on approved vendor websites. Both Walters and Stitt say ClassWallet is to blame.
Stitt seemed to excuse some parents who purchased home appliances but also said the Legislature may seek to recover misspent funds from families.
“Folks in Oklahoma that got $1,500, they’re saying ‘well, we didn’t do anything wrong because our school was closed in Tulsa. And so the reason we bought a washer and dryer is normally our kids’ clothes were washed at school.’ And one family that bought a refrigerator said ‘well, the reason we bought our refrigerator because our school was closed.’ And that was okay with this plan.”
“If the Legislature wants to sue those families for that $1,500, we can do that. The vendor is being sued, and we think we’ll recover that $600,000 or $700,000 for the taxpayer.”
Stitt says he’s made record investments in education without increasing taxes. Tax increases were approved by his predecessor Gov. Mary Fallin, as the teacher walkout loomed.
Total state dollars allocated to education have increased during his term, with over $3 billion appropriated each year since 2020. Several education budget items began receiving full funding under Stitt, including the textbook allocation and the Reading Sufficiency Act, which provides support and services to students who are at risk of retention in third grade.
But one area that could create a major drain on education funding is school vouchers, which subsidize private school tuition with public funds. Stitt has changed his stance on vouchers. At a candidate forum in 2018, he said “I’m not for vouchers” (though he did say he supported charter schools, private Christian schools and homeschooling.)
This year, he made school vouchers one of the pillars of his education platform.
“I’m going to choose that parent and let the parent make that choice, whether they think that’s a good spot for the kids, and not some bureaucrat,” he said.
A proposal earlier this year was narrowly defeated in the state Senate; it was estimated to cost the state between $119 million and $162 million.
This is one education issue where Stitt and Hofmeister stand squarely on opposite sides. Hofmeister has repeatedly called the voucher plan a “rural school killer.” It would dilute the pot of education funding available, reducing funding for all schools — even those in areas where no private schools exist – unless the Legislature approved additional funding to cover the cost.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.