Budget theatre insults voters

When State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters recently unveiled his proposed education budget, critics immediately claimed he was seeking to cut school funding and teacher pay.

Those complaints are a low-budget product of political performance and have no basis in reality.

Walters’ plan differed from one released a few months ago by his predecessor, Democrat Joy Hofmeister.

Unlike Hofmeister, Walters called for devoting $100 million to boost literacy, noting Oklahoma’s performance in that area has cratered. He also called for spending $150 million on performance-pay increases of up to $10,000 per teacher. That would build upon the average $6,100 raise given teachers in 2018 and the $1,200 raise given in 2019.

Walters’ plan would increase overall state school spending by $330 million. Yet Walters’ critics immediately declared the $330 million increase was a funding “cut” because they wanted an even larger increase.

They also claimed Walters “cut” teacher pay, even though no teacher would see a reduction in salary and Walters’ plan would provide some teachers with double the pay raise suggested by Hofmeister. For example, in a radio interview House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson referred to Walters’ plan as one that is cutting teacher pay.

Those who pretend Hofmeister’s proposal was a serious document are being particularly dishonest. Hofmeister called for teacher pay raises as she was running for governor. Her plan was always understood as a campaign stunt, not a serious budget proposal. And her plan did far less to address Oklahoma’s reading challenges. Do Walters’ critics believe the status quo on reading proficiency is acceptable, despite years of serious decline?

In the 2016-2017 school year, 38.5 percent of Oklahoma third-grade students were identified as “at risk” in reading. That figure has increased every single year since and currently includes 48.8 percent of third-grade students.

The results of the fourth-grade reading test administered by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in 2022 showed students in Oklahoma scored lower than their counterparts in all but three states. NAEP data indicated Oklahoma’s fourth-grade students had nearly one-and-a-half years less learning than did Oklahoma students in 2015.

The dramatic decline in reading proficiency occurred throughout Hofmeister’s tenure. One reason Oklahoma voters elected Walters (and rejected Hofmeister as governor) was because they wanted to change that trajectory.

State Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, summed up the situation well, saying, “Only in the colliding worlds of government and education would a $330 million increase, including $150 million to increase teacher pay, be considered a cut.” He noted pandering comments “do nothing to promote meaningful discussion and, in fact, detract from the serious work that is being done to improve education in Oklahoma.”

Those who proclaim spending increases and teacher pay raises are “cuts” are not only crying wolf—they are also insulting voters’ intelligence.

About the author Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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