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Breaking down Oklahoma's new education budget

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers a press conference on Monday surrounded by House and Senate leaders. The administration unveiled an education funding package worth $625 million in recurring funds and $160 million in one-time funds.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers a press conference on Monday surrounded by House and Senate leaders. The administration unveiled an education funding package worth $625 million in recurring funds and $160 million in one-time funds.

The road to passing this legislative session’s education budget package was full of potholes and delays, but lawmakers finally hammered out a deal worth $785 million. StateImpact’s Logan Layden sat down with education reporter Beth Wallis for a breakdown of what Oklahomans are going to get for their money.

Logan Layden: Well, Beth, it took a while to get this budget passed. What was the holdup?

Beth Wallis: It did take a while. There were a few holdups, a few sticking points. But one of the main ones was that the House of Representatives really wanted this $300 million program called the Oklahoma Student Fund, and it would have allocated funds to schools with a $2 million cap. Bigger schools would get less money per student. And then eventually, through a very long, complicated negotiation process, it was actually dropped, even though it was one of the big — what we thought were — non-negotiables.

Layden: So do rural schools get anything out of the deal?

Wallis: Yes. So the Redbud Fund will be getting $125 million, and that gives funds to schools who don't have a lot of property taxes to support their schools. And that fund can be used for buildings, infrastructure, those sorts of things.

There's also $240 million that's going to the funding formula. And the way that they adjusted these weights, is that they're more likely to affect rural or small schools. So, for instance, the weight for economically disadvantaged students, the weight for transportation, and they also expanded the small school eligibility so that more schools will be considered “small schools” for that weight.

Layden: Well, the state's teacher shortage is only getting worse. Are there any incentives for teachers in the new package?

Wallis: There is a raise for teachers and other certified employees like counselors and nurses. And it's a graduated raise. And so for the first four years, it's a $3,000 raise. Up to nine years, it's a $4,000 raise up to 14 years. It's a $5,000 raise. And then anything above 15 years is a $6,000 raise.

And the other big thing, too — that we didn't really think was going to make it to the finish line, but turns out it did — was six weeks of paid maternity leave. And that's for employees who have been there for at least a year. It also includes educators in things like Career Tech or the Department of Corrections.

There are some limits on it, though. So it’s only for moms — it's not parental leave, it’s maternity leave, and it must be taken immediately after birth. So if you have a baby in the summer, and you want to use that leave in August, you won't be able to.

Layden: [It’s] a giant package. Tell us a little bit about some of the other programs in it.

Wallis: There are two other programs that made it into the package. There's a three-year pilot program that's $150 million, and it's to upgrade school security, add police officers to schools. Each district, regardless of size, will get $96,000 for three years. And that's to be used for things like windows, alarm systems, that sort of thing.

And then there's also another program. It's a three-year, $10 million program, and that'll fund this literacy instructional team. And those instructors will be placed regionally around the state. The idea is they'll help schools with screening for reading disabilities like dyslexia and also help schools provide supports for those students as well.

Layden: I've heard about a voucher bill in this package. What about that? Can you explain, can you explain that a little?

Wallis: Sure. I want to start out by saying it's not technically a voucher. So what a voucher is, you can kind of think of it like a gift certificate. So that money is going to go straight to that institution, like a private school. But this is a refundable tax credit. So this way, the taxpayer is actually paying the school, and they're getting refunded by the state. So it kind of allows this workaround of some of the constitutional problems that exist with a voucher because you're not having that direct money transfer from the state to the private institution, let's say it's a religious institution.

It basically gives you a certain amount of money compared to your income. So if you have an income that's less than $75,000, you'll get the biggest credit of $7,500. If you have a much higher income, let's say over $250,000, you'll get the smallest credit, which is up to $5,000. There's also $1,000 that can be used for home school expenses.

And the big objections for this one, of course, you know, you have a lot of educators who are worried that public funds are being used for private school, and that those public funds should be going to public schools. Other big objections are just how much it's going to cost the state. It's got a hefty price tag.

Also, taxes are complicated, and it's going to be administered by the Oklahoma Tax Commission. And they have come out and said that there are a lot of administrative concerns that they have when it comes to clawing back these funds if they need to. And so there could be some pretty significant challenges there.

Layden: Well, it's been a very confusing legislative session for a lot of people out there, including me. And thanks for your work and helping guide us through it and understand it. Beth Wallis, education reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma. Thank you.

Wallis: Thank you for having me.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma.
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