After months of wrangling and the weeklong efforts of mediation by a retired Oklahoma Supreme Court justice, the state’s GOP leaders announced what they called a “monumental” education funding package on Monday.
The $785 million in additional spending includes money for teacher pay raises and classroom funding. It is tied to a new refundable tax credit to reimburse parents who pay for private school.
The plan also provides funding for six weeks of paid maternity leave for certified teaching professionals, more funding for a literacy program and $150 million over three years for school security officers or building upgrades.
A series of dueling press conferences and sharp words between top GOP legislative leaders in the past months melted away as more than 20 House and Senate members joined Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, House Speaker Charles McCall and Gov. Kevin Stitt at the announcement at the Oklahoma Capitol.
“Kids win, parents win and teachers win,” said Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican. “This is a big day for education regardless of the means.”
McCall, R-Atoka, said he appreciated the “passionate and spirited debate” around the educational funding package.
“Every teacher in the state of Oklahoma is going to get a much-deserved pay raise,” Stitt said. “Magic in the classroom happens with the best teacher. We have your back.”
Leaders gave much of the credit for breaking the impasse to Justice Steven Taylor, who retired from the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2016. Taylor first met with legislative negotiators on May 8. He said a path became clearer when the top four education budget subcommittee chairpersons got together with him last week, without the top legislative leaders.
“My job was to let everybody talk,” Taylor said in an interview after Monday’s press conference. “Then I would meet with the different groups separately to get to the bottom of where they’re at. Then you just find ways to bring them together.
“We were on the phone all weekend and texting and phones all week. I enjoyed it. It was a challenge. It was interesting. I learned a lot.”
McCall said the education funding agreement will be advanced in bills this week, but didn’t offer a specific timeline. The agreement allows him to unlock HB 1934, a separate private school tax credit bill that passed the House with Senate amendments on May 2. McCall sought a change in House rules to hold on to the bill indefinitely before it is sent to the Stitt for final approval.
What’s in the Educational Funding Package
The package includes $625 million in new spending that will recur in future years. Of that, $500 million will go directly into the educational funding formula. Included among that spending is funding for six weeks of paid maternity leave for certified teachers. Another $150 million is earmarked from lower tax revenues in fiscal year 2024 to reimburse parents for private school expenses. That refundable tax credit will be capped at $200 million and then $250 million by fiscal year 2026.
Other parts of the agreement include $10 million over three years for a pilot reading program and $150 million over three years for a pilot school safety program. Each school district will receive about $96,000 annually for school resource officers or security upgrades to buildings.
Another $150 million will go to the Redbud Fund, which started last year and is funded with tax revenue from the state’s medical marijuana program. It provides additional funding for school buildings in low property tax districts and charter schools, which don’t receive property tax.
How Teacher Pay Raises Will Work
The package gives pay raises between $3,000 and $6,000, depending on experience, to all certified school staff, including teachers, counselors, nurses and other personnel. The state will fund raises even for districts that do not receive state aid, Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, told media members.
The increase will bring Oklahoma’s minimum first-year teacher salary for bachelor’s degree holders to $39,601 annually.
“We know teachers are making decisions right now whether to stay or go from the classroom,” said Pugh, who chairs the Senate education committee. “This will be effective by next school year.”
Here’s how the raises are structured:
- $3,000 for those with less than four years of experience
- $4,000 for those with five to nine years of experience
- $5,000 for those with 10 to 15 years of experience
- $6,000 for those with more than 15 years of experience
The plan does not allocate raises for non-certified support employees, such as janitorial staff and school bus drivers. Stitt said districts can use additional money going into the state’s funding formula to give those employees a raise.
“I’m sure that some of those support staff can talk to their superintendent and try to get some of the $100 million we put in the formula,” Stitt said.
Private School Tax Credits
HB 1934 establishes a tiered system of refundable tax credits for private school expenses. It has a cap of $7,500 per child for families with income below $75,000 a year. It steps down in four tiers to credits of $5,000 per child for families with income below $250,000 a year. The median household income in Oklahoma is $57,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A refundable tax credit lets a taxpayer lower their tax burden by that full amount. Any amount beyond what is owed in state income taxes would be refunded to the taxpayer.
The tax credit bill has a provision where families making under $75,000 get first priority for qualifying for the credit. It will be up to the Tax Commission, through its administrative rulemaking process, to figure out the details.
HB 1934 would cap the credit at $150 million, $200 million the second year and at $250 million the third year. The bill also includes a $1,000 per child refundable tax credit for homeschooling expenses.
Senate Democrats, who like their counterparts in the House weren’t involved in any of the negotiations on the educational funding agreement, said tying higher funding to a new refundable tax credit for private and homeschooled students isn’t good policy as it will leave the Legislature $600 million less to work with.
“It is important to remember that we are talking about $600 million over three years that will not serve 95% of Oklahoma students,” Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said in a press release.
Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, called the tax credits part of a tax shelter for people who can already afford private school tuition.
“We know the Tax Commission is not equipped to manage this program and that Oklahoma tax dollars will be misused and abused with no repercussions,” Hicks said.
(Education reporter Jennifer Palmer contributed to this story.)
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to improve the clarity of a sentence on May 16, 2023.