OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Vowing to make education a priority for his administration following a teacher rebellion that shuttered schools for two weeks last year, Oklahoma's new Republican governor told lawmakers Monday he wants to give classroom teachers a $1,200, across-the-board pay raise.
In his first State of the State address to lawmakers, Gov. Kevin Stitt delivered his plan for spending about $8.2 billion , including about $70 million from a budget surplus for a teacher pay proposal that would make the state the best in the region for educators' pay and benefits.
The pay boost for teachers would be in addition to the average annual pay hike of $6,100 that teachers received last year before a statewide walkout over demands for more education spending . The walkout was part of a springtime rebellion of teachers across the nation, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Arizona.
Stitt says his long-term vision for public education includes higher standards and more classroom money, "but we must first continue our investment in the teacher, because it's not programs, curriculum or resources that a student will remember," he said. "The magic happens between the student and teacher in the classroom."
Stitt's budget includes an additional $20 million for teacher benefits, but Democrats complained his proposal does nothing to boost classroom spending.
"We've talked to a lot of teachers who say they'd rather have more money in the classroom this year if they were given a choice between the two," said House Democratic Leader Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman. "They certainly deserve another pay raise, and we want to get one for them, but the governor didn't mention anything about a classroom or a per-pupil funding increase, so we feel like that was a glaring omission."
Among Stitt's other ideas are putting more money into reserves, conducting performance audits of the largest state agencies and putting more cash into a fund the governor could use to close deals that would bring more jobs to the state. He also wants expanded power to include the hiring and firing of the directors of the state's largest agencies.
Stitt's executive budget did not include funding for the state to participate in a Medicaid expansion, however the governor and GOP leaders in the Legislature said last week they were open to the idea .
He's also proposing $5 million to fund a recruitment effort to encourage teachers to stay in Oklahoma or return to the classroom after a hiatus.
Oklahoma currently is projected to have a surplus of $612 million over last year's spending levels, but that number is expected to be reduced when the state's Board of Equalization certifies the final amount that lawmakers are authorized to spend. Stitt's Secretary of Budget Mike Mazzei says the final certified surplus could be closer to $400 million.
Stitt's executive budget calls for nearly all state agencies to have no funding increases, although education and some health and public safety agencies would see modest boosts in spending.
As a result of the state's rebounding economy, Oklahoma is expected to make a $422 million deposit into the state's Rainy Day Fund, bringing its total to $878 million. But Stitt says the state's reserves should be at least twice that amount, and he is seeking a public vote on increasing the current cap.