Ray Carter | September 28, 2023

Education budget plan emphasizes tutoring, teacher pay

Ray Carter

Members of the State Board of Education have approved a budget proposal for public schools that would fund tutoring for struggling students, make permanent a major teacher signing-bonus plan, and provide additional bonuses to tutor-teachers with the size of that bonus tied to students’ academic gains.

“Free-market principles work,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters. “They will work in education as well. It is time we reward the best and brightest teachers and tutors, and it’s time we incentivize excellence in our schools.”

The budget proposal submitted by Walters to board members totals more than $3.9 billion, which is $47 million less than last year. However, he noted that reduction is the result of last year’s budget including funding for multi-year pilot projects that do not require new appropriations this year.

Otherwise, the budget plan maintains the significant funding increases approved in recent years for public schools.

From 1993 to 2018, the state of Oklahoma invested an additional $1.35 billion in public schools. Spending has now increased more in five years than in the prior 25. From 2019 to the current state budget year, Oklahoma spending on schools increased by $1.37 billion.

As part of his plan, Walters called for directing money to new programs designed to help Oklahoma students who are currently performing one year below grade level.

“Failure should not be an option in the state of Oklahoma,” Walters said. “I believe that every single child should have the opportunity to achieve greatness in our schools.”

He noted that only 24% of Oklahoma fourth graders tested proficient—meaning at grade level—in reading, according to state testing results. That means 76% of fourth graders are not proficient, Walters noted.

“Only 18% of our 11th graders are proficient in math,” Walters said. “Again, look at the other side. That means 82% of our students who are approaching graduation in 11th grade are not proficient in math, and we have only 21% of 11th graders that are proficient in science.”

National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests have produced similar results for Oklahoma students. The state ranks 47th in reading nationwide.

The budget proposal includes $38 million for early literacy tutoring and training in phonics-based instruction.

That program would provide teachers who tutor with bonuses and the size of the bonus will be tied to the amount of student growth achieved in reading.

With other programs, Walters noted teachers are often expected to take on additional responsibilities but do not necessarily receive additional compensation.

The budget proposal also includes funding for similar tutoring programs in math and reading with growth bonuses for tutors.

The budget plan includes money to make permanent a signing bonus program that has lured new teachers to Oklahoma by providing a $10 million appropriation for that program each year. A pilot program, which provided bonuses of $15,000 to $50,000 over five years, attracted more than 500 new teachers to 200 school districts.

State Board of Education member Donald Burdick noted the budget request includes around $60 million total for the tutoring and signing-bonus programs, and that about $45 million would go to teacher compensation.

The State Board of Education approved the budget proposal unanimously. The document will now be submitted to the governor and legislative leaders for consideration in the 2024 legislative session.

Walters also told board members he will be submitting a proposal at the group’s October meeting to amend the school-accreditation process to include measurement of student outcomes.

There are currently 42 school sites in Oklahoma designated as “most rigorous intervention” (MRI) schools. Those schools have received F grades on state report cards for three consecutive years.

“My belief is that when you see schools that continue failing, year after year, that’s a huge concern,” Walters said. “Because what ends up happening is you embed a culture of failure in these school districts.”

He noted that MRI schools receive additional funding and other state support to improve outcomes, yet many of them “continue to fail.”

There are about 25,110 students currently enrolled in MRI schools in Oklahoma.

On average, less than 7% of students in MRI schools are proficient in math, less than 16% are proficient in science, and only 19% are at grade level in English.

Worse, more than 55% of students in MRI schools score “below basic” on state tests in math, meaning they are more than a year below grade level. Similarly, nearly 64% are below basic in science and 42% are below basic in English.

The MRI schools are concentrated in Tulsa County (18 MRI schools) and Oklahoma County (12 MRI schools).

In contrast, there are only two MRI school sites in all of western Oklahoma—Lawton High School and Gracemont Elementary School.

“There are certain parts of the state where we have much larger issues with failing districts,” Walters said. “I will commend a lot of our rural districts. They will have a school on the failing list, and we see a lot of quick turnarounds in these districts.”

State law requires that school-accreditation standards “equal or exceed nationally recognized accreditation standards to the extent that the standards are consistent with an academic-results oriented approach to accreditation.”

Yet, Walters noted, the current accreditation process does not consider academic outcomes at a school.

He noted several charter schools have achieved “incredible turnarounds” for student populations who underperform elsewhere, and that some “really small rural schools that have had some of the biggest academic growth in reading in the country here in Oklahoma,” pointing to the Cottonwood school district as an example. Walters said those schools provide a blueprint for schools that are currently repeat-F schools.

“I reject the view that our kids can’t learn,” Walters said. “I reject the view that schools can’t make drastic changes to ensure student outcomes.”

State Board of Education member Donald Burdick noted that if MRI schools are receiving $10,000 per student—which he noted is lower than the typical per-pupil funding—that means those MRI schools receive more than $250 million per year to educate their students.

“They’re not coming out of this investment with the ability, the simple abilities, to read and do some basic math,” Burdick said. “And we’re not considering that in the accreditation standard currently.”

He voiced support for changing the accreditation process.

Walters said the proposed school budget and likely changes in the school-accreditation process are meant to shift the school system’s focus to student outcomes.

“We have to do all we can to incentivize excellence in our schools,” Walters said. “We have to do all that we can to ensure every single child in the state of Oklahoma has access to the highest quality education possible.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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