Will spending increase improve student results?
THIS year’s legislative session will be remembered primarily for passage of multiple tax increases that were used, in part, to boost education funding. Lawmakers passed the largest teacher pay raise in state history, giving raises that ranged from $5,000 to $8,000 apiece and averaged $6,100. The Legislature appropriated $2.9 billion to common education, the largest school appropriation ever.
No significant reforms were enacted simultaneously. It was argued Oklahoma’s poor education rankings are due primarily to funding, not structural issues or flawed approaches. We’ll know in time if that theory was correct.
Take teacher pay. For several years, school officials have complained of a teacher shortage. That complaint is heard in virtually every state, but officials insisted Oklahoma’s shortage was more severe, pointing to growing use of emergency certification. Those certificates, given to applicants who have relevant subject-matter expertise but not education degrees, rose to nearly 2,000 this school year. While that’s only a fraction of the 40,000-plus teaching jobs in Oklahoma, this was deemed a major problem. At the same time, officials said educators were leaving Oklahoma in droves to take teaching jobs in other states.
With the new pay raises, teacher salaries will increase 15 percent to 17 percent in a single year. Average teacher pay will be far above the regional average, and above the average in every state bordering Oklahoma except Texas. And, after accounting for both benefits and cost of living, the average pay-and-benefits package in Oklahoma will be slightly better than even the Texas average. After accounting for cost-ofliving differences, it’s estimated Oklahoma’s average teacher pay will be ranked as high as 12th-best in the nation.
Will the use of emergency certificates evaporate? Will teaching applicants now far exceed teaching positions? Will we now read of other states complaining they are losing teachers to Oklahoma?
An average of 63 percent of Oklahoma students scored below proficient in the 18 state tests administered in grades three through eight and 10th grade. On the most recent round of National Assessment of Educational Progress testing, 65 percent to 71 percent of Oklahoma fourth-grade students were below grade level in math, reading and science, while 72 percent to 76 percent of eighth-grade students were below proficient in those subjects. Fourth-grade reading scores, which were above the national average two years prior, dropped significantly and are now below the national average. Oklahoma scores are below the national average in all grade-and-subject areas NAEP assesses. Also, 40 percent of Oklahoma’s public high school graduates in 2016 required at least one remedial course in college.
Since this year’s education appropriation increased by 19 percent, will we see a comparable increase in students performing at grade level in major subjects or prepared for college? Will student scores be above average, at a minimum?
This year’s increase in taxes and spending should generate improvement in student learning. If it doesn’t, then it’ll be evidence that structural reform is needed and that Oklahoma’s education challenges remain unmet.