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Oklahoma Senate Education Committee outlines $541 million agenda, proposes teacher salary raise

Oklahoma State Capitol (copy)

The Oklahoma State Capitol building, Jan. 20, 2019.

The Oklahoma Senate Education Committee conducted a press conference Tuesday overviewing their $541 million agenda for the upcoming legislative session, including plans to recruit more teachers, install a tailored grant application for school districts, raise teacher starting salaries and provide them 12 weeks paid maternity leave.

Senate Education Chair Adam Pugh broke his plan into four pillars: recruit, retain, reward and reform. The plan consists of more than 12 filed bills and is the outcome of Pugh spending the past summer talking with educators and administrators throughout Oklahoma, according to his statement in the press conference.

The agenda includes plans to recruit and retain qualified teachers for Oklahoma’s classrooms, reward “hard-working” teachers and reform various systems that require overhauls, Pugh said.

Pugh shared his personal experience and appreciation for education before explaining the nuances of his proposed educational agenda. 

“I don’t believe I would be standing here before you today if it wasn’t for the experiences I had in education, whether it be in my small public school, or in my bachelor’s program, or in any of the graduate programs that I’ve had the ability and honor to participate in,” Pugh said. “It’s an honor of a lifetime to serve as Senate Education chair.”

The process of building this plan started after the end of last year’s session and has been constructed over the last eight months. It was important to collaborate with educators and build a consensus via meetings this past summer, Pugh said.

Pugh met with over 200 public school superintendents and every university president in the state over the summer to discuss ideas and issues in the Oklahoma education system. 

Pugh highlighted a select few bills, such as Senate Bill 529 and 522. SB 529 would create an Oklahoma Teacher Corps and would require $15 million. It would ensure that any Oklahoma student who graduates from a K-12 system and wants to pursue educational studies at an Oklahoma university will have their degree paid for by the state under the condition that they work for four years at a Title I school in Oklahoma after graduation.

SB 522 would reinstall a teacher mentorship program and require an additional $5 million so any new teacher, whether they be new to the career or just to the district, will have a mentor.

Alongside fostering healthy environments for teachers via mentors, Pugh’s plan also intends to provide teachers with 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, a drastic change from the current unpaid six weeks of leave.

Other facets of Pugh’s plan included $50 million allocated to Oklahoma School Security Institute that would provide schools with an avenue to tailor their budget to their needs. The funds would create a grant application process for Oklahoma school districts where each district could receive money tailored to their specific needs, allowing them to individually solve school safety and security issues, Pugh said.

The “reward” aspect of Pugh’s plan will cost $241 million. The ultimate goal for this portion of the plan is to make starting pay for teachers in Oklahoma $40,000. The funds also leave room to provide pay raises at “critical inflection points in a teacher’s career,” Pugh said.

Oklahoma’s current average teacher starting salary is $38,074, according to the National Education Association.

Pugh said one of the most aggressive goals of the plan falls under the “reform” portion, where the Senate Education committee hopes to make it so Oklahoma public school fourth graders should be at a 100 percent literacy rate. 

“We should be willing to accept nothing less,” Pugh said. “Learning how to read and write and early childhood literacy is the bedrock of everything else that a child will do as they matriculate through the education system.”

The reforms also included plans to alter the state’s student information systems and how school districts store data. There are currently over 520 disparate student information systems, Pugh said. 

Pugh concluded the press conference by stating that school vouchers have no presence in his plan, also stating that he and Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters had not discussed the $541 million agenda at any length.

“I’m here to do big things, and I’m here to do good things,” Pugh said. “I firmly believe that if we enact this plan and if we fund it with the proper resources, we will see educational outcomes across the state improve.”

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