ATOKA — Newly elected State Superintendent Ryan Walters may be off the campaign trail, but he has only just begun explaining some of his most controversial ideas to public school educators.
Right off the bat Monday morning, Walters told Atoka-area superintendents and teachers that he made the 100-mile drive to speak to them directly and also hear their concerns directly.
School choice and merit-based pay incentives for the highest-rated teachers were top of mind for Walters.
“I’m going to continue to have conversations with teachers and parents all across the state to develop the path of how we get to the vision of school choice for all,” Walters told the Tulsa World about his purpose for coming to Atoka.
Walters also wanted to clear the air by saying he does not believe Oklahoma needs to stop receiving all federal funding for its public schools. Rather, he believes that the state should begin “pushing back” on some of the strings attached including specific standardized test mandates — and that includes initiating lawsuits, if necessary.
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In this rural, southeastern corner of Oklahoma, superintendents told Walters, school choice exists largely between public schools — and has been a longstanding option for parents before state lawmakers ever decided to formalize and mandate the practice.
“We feel like that is something we have done for years and years and years,” said Atoka Public Schools Superintendent Jay McAdams. “Most of us here have kids from all over. Do you feel like that’s more of an issue in rural Oklahoma or in urban areas?”
Walters said the size and scale of districts impacts their ability to address the issues that they face.
Walters said he would be open to pushing for Tulsa Public Schools to be broken up into smaller schools because of academic results there he says are dismal and parents who complain they are locked in because they can’t afford private school tuition and suburban schools bursting at the seams.
“School report cards are getting ready to come out. Tulsa has done so poor that if you took Tulsa Public Schools out of what we’re doing, we’re in the top half nationally. If you take Tulsa and OKC out, we’re in the top 15,” Walters said.
McAdams interjected with his original point: “Why are we bringing their problems to us?”
Walters praised Stringtown Superintendent Tony Potts for offering the most simplified explanation he said he had heard to date of one of the most common concerns for public education-minded Oklahomans — that taxpayer-funded private school tuition and homeschool costs would undercut funding for the public school system.
Potts grabbed a pen and jotted down two circles on a piece of paper.
“This is all the public school kids in a pie. This is all the private school kids in their pie. Unless you put more money in here (the public school pie) and all of these kids (from the private school chart) move into here (public school pie), Stringtown Public Schools loses money,” Potts said.
“The line in the sand for me is if you didn’t lose any kids, you shouldn’t lose any dollars. I agree with you fundamentally,” Walters told him. “I also believe that the only way we truly ensure every kid has a quality education is to say I want all options on the table and I want funding to follow that kid.”
Tushka Superintendent Matt Simpson told Walters this: “We are not losing kids. Parents and kids think we are the best choice.”
Oklahoma Speaker of the House Charles McCall, R-Atoka, attended alongside the dozen or so school district leaders.
While he has supported other school choice measures that have been adopted, such as the Opportunity Scholarship Fund and year-round public school transfers, McCall has stood firmly against bills that would direct taxpayer dollars to vouchers or education savings accounts for private school and homeschooling.
McCall told Walters another measure to more closely keep funds with students who move between public schools was accepted by district leaders throughout southeastern Oklahoma even though it makes it more difficult for them to manage budget fluctuations year in and year out.
“If you want to tackle issues in the urban schools, we’ve got to find a way to do that without harming these schools that are doing their best,” McCall said, before adding: “Here, we do not have an economic base — we do not have the ad valorem base that the urban centers do. It’s great that kids have a choice to go to Atoka, Stringtown, Tushka, Caney from K-12.
“There isn’t a person in this room that doesn’t want every single child in Oklahoma to have an outstanding education, but it’s more about the ‘how’ than it is about the ‘what.’”
Pay incentives for teachers
Walters explained to some Atoka-area teachers that he has been working with Texas, Iowa and Tennessee on an incentive pay plan that would reward a select few highly rated teachers in each school with up to $10,000 on top of their salaries.
His FY24 budget pitch to the Oklahoma Legislature includes a request for $150 million to begin with.
“I hear about discipline issues that weren’t present years ago, I hear about lack of respect for the profession, but there’s also the pay showing how much are you appreciating and respecting what teachers do,” he told teachers.
Walters himself took notes with pen and pad as teachers voiced questions and concerns about how such an incentive pay system would work.
Among them were the validity of the state’s current standardized tests to measure the quality and effectiveness of teachers and the subjectivity of principal and assistant principal evaluations.
“The most important thing is how much did they grow,” Walters said, referring to students.
One teacher suggested more pay incentives for experienced teachers to train and mentor other teachers and even for spending part of their day in school leadership or school administration duties.
Walters, a former McAlester Public Schools teacher himself, praised the idea as he jotted down notes.
“Everything we do in the education system financially incentivizes you to go into administration,” he said. “But the number one important thing for parents is high-quality teachers.”