The battle for Oklahoma education funding continues
The Oklahoma legislature has been deadlocked for weeks as it hashes out a plan for education funding. StateImpact’s Beth Wallis sat down with The Oklahoman’s education reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel to talk about the events at the Capitol that led up to this moment.
Beth Wallis: Nuria, thanks so much for talking with me.
Nuria Martinez-Keel: Oh, it’s so good to be here.
Wallis: So let's rewind a little bit. During last year's session, we saw this rift between the House and the Senate related to a program that would use state dollars to pay for students to go to private school or be homeschooled. And that's commonly known as a voucher program. Can you remind us what went down with last year's voucher effort?
Martinez-Keel: After a lot of efforts from the Senate's top lawmaker, Pro Tem Greg Treat, a lot of lobbying on his behalf on the Senate floor, that measure ultimately failed in a pretty narrow vote. It theoretically maybe could have passed, but there were some lawmakers gone and he couldn't get broad enough Republican support. And then there was almost unanimously a “no” from Democrats, so it failed on the Senate floor last year.
Wallis: And so the speaker of the House, Charles McCall, is from Atoka. The Senate Pro Tem, Greg Treat is from Oklahoma City. We're seeing this kind of rural/urban divide rearing its head now. How did that play in, last year?
Martinez-Keel: You saw a lot of rural Republicans opposing the voucher measure. Theoretically, students — and this is actually parroting what Charles McCall said about vouchers last year, was — he said, “What would a kid in Atoka County do with a voucher?”
There are no private schools, at least not that I'm aware of, in that particular area. Most of the state’s private schools operate in the Oklahoma City or Tulsa metro areas. There are some examples in rural Oklahoma, but far fewer out there. So there aren't as many opportunities to actually put a voucher to use.
And there are a lot of concerns that that program would take away from overall state funding of public schools, to pay for a program that would not benefit students everywhere. I think Greg Treat would probably disagree with certain points of that, but that was the overwhelming feeling, I think, amongst rural Oklahomans, especially rural Republicans in the legislature.
Wallis: So now this session, we're seeing another big chasm between the two chambers' leaders. Let's keep talking about vouchers, or rather, how it's packaged this year: school choice tax credits. And what's interesting about this measure is that it actually has made its way through the Senate and House, but it hasn't been signed by the governor yet. So what's the holdup?
Martinez-Keel: It passed the House. It has passed the Senate, but the House was the last chamber to vote on this. And Speaker Charles McCall used a pretty obscure term within his powers called “capturing a bill.” And he has captured this bill and said he will not send it to the governor until the House and Senate can reach an agreement on public school funding. That's basically the hang-up here, is that tax credit piece will not go to the governor's desk until they reach a partnering legislation on how they're going to fund public schools and what way they're going to structure teacher pay raises.
Wallis: It's just being used as like, leverage?
Martinez-Keel: Basically, yes.
Wallis: So speaking of Governor Kevin Stitt, he's definitely been playing a role in this negotiation process, especially putting pressure on the situation through a storm of vetoes. Which side of this debate does the governor come down on, and which measures have become casualties of this veto war?
Martinez-Keel: I think the governor would want to portray himself as some sort of intermediary between the two chambers. I think the House would say he sided more with the Senate, and I think the Senate would say he sided more with the House.
The governor did put together a compromise package that combined priorities from both chambers. He used the Oklahoma Student Fund — that's been a big priority for House lawmakers. He adopted a teacher pay raise structure that came out of the Senate.
But I think if you look at the way that the compromise bill was put together, you probably would see more similarities to the House's plan. And I think the Senate has taken some slight to that.
But, you know, I think the governor would try to paint himself in the middle of this dispute, trying to bring both sides together. We did see him get really involved to the extent of vetoing a number of Senate bills. We didn't see him do the same thing to the House. He took a rather punitive measure against the Senate when the two sides weren't reaching an agreement. He decided to take action by vetoing 20 bills by Senate authors. The Senate responded to that in kind by basically nixing the confirmation of two of the governor's cabinet secretaries.
So both sides were kind of flexing their power there. And I think they've sort of reached a stalemate of their own. We haven't seen any more cabinet secretaries failing in their confirmations, and we haven't seen any further vetoes by the governor of Senate bills over this education dispute. He's obviously vetoed a number of other bills, but there were 20 Senate bills that he basically vetoed for the express purpose of not reaching an agreement on the education package.
Wallis: So you mentioned the Oklahoma Student Fund. Let's dig into that a little bit. It seems like we have a fundamental disagreement on how these funds should be distributed and whether that process is equitable and whether that matters. So what are the cases being made on either side?
Martinez-Keel: I think on the House side, they're saying we need to support our rural schools. You see a lot more rural representation on the House side. The Senate is a lot more urban, and I think that's where you're seeing this huge dividing line between those two geographic areas — a lot more suburban and urban folks in the Senate; much more rural-heavy in the House.
And the House has said we want to create this Oklahoma Student Fund, which is separate from the education funding formula. We'll come back to the formula, but that's kind of the lifeblood of school funding. This would be outside of that. This would dedicate funds per student to each school, but capping the amount of money that every school district could receive at $2 million.
You're not necessarily going to see a huge difference in dollar amounts. That's not the crux of the issue here. The crux of the issue is the proportion to a school's overall budget. So, for example, you take Oklahoma City Public Schools, which would absolutely hit that $2 million cap. And $2 million is frankly a drop in the bucket in OKCPS's overall budget.
Take Pryor Public Schools, for example, which would just be under that cap. $2 million makes a far bigger difference in Pryor Public Schools’ budget than it would in OKCPS. A lot of, I think, Democrats have put it in the form of how many dollars per head in each district. You're seeing that range in the hundreds of dollars in rural schools, where it would be worth about hundreds of dollars per student. In Oklahoma City or other urban areas, it would be about $60 or so per student, is kind of how it would measure out.
You're seeing a lot of objection to that in the Senate. Again, these are representatives who come from school districts that would hit that $2 million cap. They would rather see, if you're going to put any extra funding to public schools, they want that money to run through the funding formula. Which also distributes money per student, also gives weight based on certain economic factors — if a student is learning English as a second language, there are a lot of different ways. It's based on student need and based on student count. No cap in the funding formula, so you wouldn't be seeing districts limited in how much they could receive from this.
So I think that's been a huge sticking point, is whether this student fund is a part of the package or not. It's a nonstarter in the Senate. A package that does not have that $2 million cap student fund is a nonstarter in the House.
Wallis: Let's move on to teacher raises. We've heard a lot of talk about tackling this teacher shortage head-on. And there was a slew of bills that were showcased at the beginning of this session, and they were meant to attract and retain those teachers. But since then, many of those measures have fallen through the cracks. So why can't the House and Senate agree on raises?
Martinez-Keel: I think they have agreed that they should have raises. How much those raises should be, and the way that they are structured, has been the debate. You have seen teacher pay raises pass both chambers in the legislature. So I think it's safe to say that lawmakers on the whole are supportive of doing them.
But you've seen initially, the House proposed a flat $2,500 raise for all teachers, regardless of how much they make today. The Senate produced a plan that has really come to the forefront in terms of structuring it by years of experience. So teachers with X range of years in the classroom would get this amount, and that raise would go higher and higher for teachers who have been in the classroom longer. That is what is on the table now.
That's what's in the governor's compromise plan, which is $2,000 to $5,000 raises based on how long you've been in the classroom. The Senate has countered with $4,000 to $8,000, based on how long you've been in the classroom. And so they haven't reached an agreement on that. I think you do see some uniformity that you haven't seen in the past, that it seems like both chambers are supportive of doing some sort of teacher pay raise this year.
Wallis: And they also threw in a returning employee stipend. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Martinez-Keel: Right. That's been part of the Senate plan along with that $4-8,000 teacher pay raise. They wanted to add in a $3,000 one-time stipend for basically all support staff and certified employees that work in a school. You would see your cafeteria workers, your school counselors getting raises that wouldn't show up in the teacher pay raise plan. Some of that money would start to go to them.
I think the House complaint has been that the Senate allocated $500 million for their public school funding plan. So to support schools, raise pay for teachers and do the $3,000 stipend would cost, according to the State Department of Education's estimate, would cost over $800 million. And the Senate only appropriated $500 million.
Now, Pro Tem Greg Treat says they would not leave this package at a shortfall. They would ensure everything is funded. But the House has taken a big issue with, "Well, it's going to cost X amount, and it's only appropriating a smaller amount to accomplish this." So you're seeing them go back and forth. Basically, you're seeing the House say, “You guys aren't appropriating enough.” The Senate says, “We will make sure everything's funded.” And here we are today. No conclusion in sight at this point.
Wallis: Well, now, at this point, we are just two weeks away from the end of the legislative session. What kinds of efforts are we seeing to get to a resolution, and what happens if we don't?
Martinez-Keel: It's possible that they end this session without a deal. That's within the realm of possibility. I don't think anyone involved in these negotiations wants to see that happen. I think the governor would be outraged, especially if those private school tax credits don't ultimately make it to his desk.
So, I mean, they're in negotiations now. They've been in negotiations heavily this week. We saw on the governor's schedule from Monday that he spent most of that day in education meetings. So we know that they're still trying to hash out a deal. But whether they're going to be able to agree on the final terms is still really unclear. And it's possible that they won't. I think that would be a pretty anticlimactic way to end the session after months and months of going back and forth. But it's possible that they don't.
Wallis: Is there a possibility of a special session?
Martinez-Keel: There is. The governor could call them back and say, “You didn't accomplish this during session, so we're going to discuss this again in a special session.” I wouldn't say that's a silver bullet either. The governor recalled two special sessions last summer. One of them was unsuccessful. You saw a chamber gavel in and gavel out saying, you know, “We talked about this during session, didn't reach a deal. This is over with.”
So I wouldn't say that a special session necessarily accomplishes what the governor wants to accomplish, but it could. They could come back to the table and discuss it again if they don't reach a deal by the end of May.
You know, I think you've just seen these two chambers go back and forth. And the negotiations got off to a rough start. You saw the House Speaker come out really early in the session and say, “We have put together a package in the House. We have sent it over to the Senate. The Senate needs to take a vote on the House package without making a single change to it.”
And I think that has really colored a lot of what has happened since then. The Senate was very frustrated when that happened. Greg Treat, the Pro Tem said, “That's not the way that this works. You don't say that the other chamber doesn't get to make any changes or put forth any of its own ideas.”
And you've kind of seen Charles McCall repeat that, like, “Please take a vote on my package. Please take a vote on my package.” And the Senate Pro Tem has said, “It's not going to pass unamended.”
So you've just seen any changes that either side has brought forward have been met with some sort of resistance. And it's that gridlock that's really carried through these negotiations. And I think both sides want to reach a deal. But how much they're willing to concede to the other side, it remains to be seen.
Wallis: Nuria, thanks again so much for sharing your reporting with us.
Martinez-Keel: Thank you.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.