This year, Republican leaders from the governor on down have endorsed increased school funding with Gov. Kevin Stitt and House leaders calling for an additional $1,200 teacher raise on top of last year’s historic $6,000 pay hike, while Senate leaders are calling for greater classroom funding.
The Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC), which bills itself as nonpartisan, has responded by endorsing a Democratic budget plan. The proposal put forth by the House Democrats not only spends the entirety of this year’s $570 million surplus, but would increase total spending by more than $800 million. To fill the financial gap, Democrats would raise taxes on income and investment.
After House Democrats unveiled their budget proposal, the Oklahoma PLAC Twitter account retweeted one portion of the document and declared, “Let’s hope these plans can be met with bipartisan support!”
Republican responses to that endorsement ran the gamut. Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore offered PLAC a political version of CliffsNotes: “Democrats are not in charge.”
Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, noted the Democratic plan is not tethered to reality.
“It’s always easier being in the minority because it’s always easy to come up with the pipe dream and raising more taxes and doing all these things and not doing a balanced approach and actually governing,” Martinez said.
He said that results in a document that may appeal to every interest group but can never pass.
The House Democratic plan calls for substantial spending increases in a variety of areas. In education, the plan calls for a $1,200 teacher pay raise, which is in line with what Stitt has endorsed. But the Democratic plan also calls for a $1,200 raise for all non-teaching positions in the school system, $10,000 bonuses for teachers that obtain National Board certification, a $200 million increase in classroom funding, a $21.9 million increase for CareerTech, and another $50 million for state colleges.
The House Democrats’ budget plan for education alone would consume nearly three-fourths of this year’s $570 million surplus.
“I’m sure it’s attractive to see that because I’m sure there’s more money for everybody, and all these great things,” Martinez said. “We don’t necessarily have that luxury. You have to have government come up with a budget that’s workable and balanced and fair and makes sense.”
Other lawmakers noted that education funding has been a clear priority for Republican legislators for some time.
“I think education is 51 cents out of every dollar, so it is our top priority, always has been, always will be,” said Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman. “I think it’s the governor’s top priority. I think it’s the House and the Senate’s top priority.”
Standridge has previously called for a $250 million increase in education funding this year.
Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, expressed a similar view.
“I feel like we have made education a top priority as a Republican caucus,” Osburn said. “And we continue to work every day, year after year, to move that needle.”
Last year the Legislature increased overall education funding by 19 percent, including a $6,000 average pay raise that bumped average teacher salaries as high as 11th best in the nation after accounting for cost-of-living differences, according to one study.
“The reason why I ran was to help public education in Oklahoma,” Osburn said. “I feel like we have, over the last two years, really moved that needle and I hope that’s noticed by all groups out there who think that maybe Republicans don’t value public education, because we do.”
Quinn said interest groups who are now touting Democratic proposals should note how the state fared when Democrats had control of state government, saying there’s a gap between Democrats’ political promises and the reality of their governance.
“Look at the difference between the transportation improvements between Republicans and Democrats,” Quinn said. “Look at the difference between our retirement system between Democrats and Republicans. Those are two huge things. Look at the difference between workers’ comp premiums between Democrats and the Republicans.”
Oklahoma transportation funding remained stagnant for two decades before Republicans won control of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and a huge backlog of crumbling bridges were in need of repair. Most of those bridges have since been replaced thanks to funding reforms championed by Republicans. State pension systems ranked among the worst-funded in the country but are now far more stable due to reforms enacted since 2010. The state’s workers’ compensation rates were among the nation’s highest, but have improved following reforms.
Too often, Quinn noted, political promises of unending financial largess collide with financial reality to the detriment of the state.
“I’m not a partisan person,” Quinn said, “but when you want to sit there and talk about education funding, look at all the corrections that have been made.”