Ray Carter | October 5, 2022
Stitt’s education focus: parents, teachers, outcomes
Gov. Kevin Stitt said improving education is the key to Oklahoma’s long-term future, and that his efforts are focused on parents, teachers and—ultimately—boosting student achievement.
“We can’t be a top 10 state—we all agree on this—without a top 10 education system,” Stitt said.
Stitt discussed his education agenda in a discussion moderated by Daniel Hamlin, an assistant professor and director of social science and policy research at the Oklahoma Leadership and Policy Center for Thriving Schools and Communities (THRIVE) at the University of Oklahoma.
Stitt said teacher pay in Oklahoma must keep pace with market rates, and noted he signed a teacher pay raise during his first term and championed a new program that could pay the best teachers up to $100,000 per year.
As of 2019, Oklahoma’s average teacher pay ranked 34th in the nation based on the raw dollar amount, and 21st nationally after adjusting for cost-of-living differences with the latter figure highest in the region at that time. While other states have adjusted their teacher salaries since then, Oklahoma’s pay still remains second-highest in the region today.
“We can always do better and will continue to do that,” Stitt said. “We are more competitive than sometimes people think.”
The teacher empowerment fund, which Stitt signed into law this year, creates a pathway for top-performing teachers to earn incomes above $100,000 per year.
“We’re one of only three states in the nation that have designated a pathway to pay teachers six figures,” Stitt said. “So, we’re a national leader on that issue. But the bottom line: We need top talent to stay in the classroom. That’s where the magic happens.”
Before the creation of the teacher empowerment fund, he noted teachers had to leave the classroom and become administrators to achieve that level of salary in Oklahoma schools. He said the average school administrator earns about $92,000 per year in Oklahoma, compared to $54,000 for teachers.
“The teachers of the year that I’ve met and that I’ve talked to, they had no choice,” Stitt said. “If they wanted to earn more money, they were having to go into administration.”
Stitt said one challenge in Oklahoma is that too much money is diverted away from the classroom.
“One problem with our education system today is we spend more money on administration than we need to, in my opinion,” Stitt said. “Did you know that we have more non-teachers in our system, in (the) Oklahoma education system, than actual teachers? The teachers should be up in arms about that. Let’s make sure we get those dollars into classrooms.”
In addition to fighting to keep the best teachers in Oklahoma classrooms, Stitt said he will continue to champion school-choice efforts that allow parents to use a share of their child’s state funding to send that student to other schools, including private schools.
“It’s to give parents more options,” Stitt said. “That’s all we’re talking about. We’re going to continue to invest in schools, but we want some of that funding to be fungible to fund the student, not necessarily the ZIP code where they ‘belong.’ Some of these school districts have high dropout rates or low test scores. They’re not going to fix themselves from within. We have to allow parents to vote with their feet.”
Stitt noted that under the proposal, the roughly $7,000 per student that is tied to local property taxes stays with the local district. Only roughly $4,000 per student tied to state funding would follow a student to any school.
As a result, even when a student leaves a school, that school retains around $7,000 per pupil with no associated obligation to teach the departed student.
“For a lot of the folks that say, ‘Hey, you’re going to defund my school,’ that’s simply not true,” Stitt said.
The governor noted children have wildly divergent needs and there are times when families need to move a child into a different education environment.
“If you were in a school district that your son was getting into the wrong crowd, getting into drugs, or your daughter was getting into violence or something that wasn’t good for her, you would do whatever you could to move your kid to a different school district, to put them into a private school, to put them into a charter school, just change their environment,” Stitt said. “School choice shouldn’t just be for the rich or those that can afford it. It should be for every single Oklahoman. And that’s why I fight so hard to give parents more options.”
Stitt noted that education funding has been increased throughout his tenure as governor, but also said spending increases alone are not enough.
Nationwide, he noted that per-pupil spending on K-12 schools has tripled since the 1950s and the United States now spends, on average, 37 percent more per pupil than any other major developed nation, yet the U.S. does not rank in the top 10 countries for educational outcomes.
In Oklahoma, K-12 spending has been increased by nearly $1 billion in the last eight years.
“We put more money into common education than ever before,” Stitt said. “As governor, I kept doing that every single year and as governor I will continue to do that. But at the same time, over the last eight years our outcomes have declined.”
He noted Oklahoma now spends around $11,500 per student and ranks 40th for academic outcomes. At the same time, Florida spends less per pupil and ranks 17th in outcomes. Utah also spends less per pupil but ranks in the top 10 states in fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading as well as fourth-grade math.
“I point that out because per-pupil spending is not directly tied to outcomes,” Stitt said.
Stitt said he is “not for forced consolidation” and that districts should remain open if local families prefer them.
“I love some of our rural schools,” Stitt said, “because they are close to the parents, some of our best schools, are getting kids college-ready or career-ready.”
While his education agenda includes several areas, Stitt said the overarching goal is simple: “Let’s actually make sure that we’re focused on outcomes.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.