OKLAHOMA CITY — Lawmakers on Wednesday asked the new state superintendent about his proposal to offer teachers performance-based pay raises and boost young students’ reading scores.
For about two hours, a bipartisan group of lawmakers peppered State Superintendent Ryan Walters with questions about his $3.51 billion education budget request that seeks $330 million in new funding.
Some lawmakers seemed hesitant to fund Walters’ initiatives as support for across-the-board teacher pay raises appear to be gaining momentum in state Legislature.
People are also reading…
Lawmakers questioned the feasibility of implementing a statewide system for merit-based teacher pay raises, noted that the state Legislature has previously earmarked funding for early childhood reading initiatives, and expressed concerns that one-time funding requests in the budget could turn into annual expenses.
Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, also took issue with Walters’ comments vowing to eliminate liberal indoctrination in schools, saying that rhetoric is scaring and discouraging educators.
Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, kicked off the joint House and Senate budget hearing by asking Walters whether the State Department of Education is budgeting for the federal government to claw back at least $650,000 in pandemic relief funds for education that were misspent on noneducational items. McBride said the question was top of mind after Attorney General Gentner Drummond dismissed a lawsuit against an out-of-state vendor that Walters said was to blame for the misused funds.
Walters said his staff is reviewing Drummond’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit and that he will work with the governor and attorney general on next steps.
Rep. Rhonda Baker, who leads the House Common Education Committee, pointed out that while lawmakers have funded reading initiatives before, part of the struggle has been keeping teachers who are devoted to those programs in the classroom.
“We have, as a legislative body, voted on the science of reading,” said Baker, R-Yukon. “We’ve been very supportive of that, and we have made sure that there has been funding for that, so none of that is new. What is challenging, though, … is that we are not keeping teachers.”
Walters is seeking $100 million in new funding for his Every Kid Reads Recovery Act, which aims to improve the reading ability of students in prekindergarten through third grade.
The funding would allow the state to hire 75 reading coaches, offer dyslexia intervention grants to schools, and set districts up to provide reading support after school and in summer programs, he said. The program would be similar to initiatives in Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
Walters said having a comprehensive reading program is key because piecemeal funding for new reading initiatives has left the state ranked 49th in fourth-grade reading.
“This is a recovery plan for a state that has been woefully poor in its reading scores,” Walters said.
Sen. Adam Pugh, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was concerned that Walters’ ask for one-time funding for the reading initiative could turn into a recurring cost.
The Legislature has been burned before by one-time funding requests that have turned into ongoing expenses, said Pugh, R-Edmond.
In Walters’ first budget hearing last week, he faced a barrage of questions and some criticism when he provided few details on his budget request. Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, wanted more information on Wednesday.
He probed Walters’ request for new funding, saying the superintendent had shown “no concrete plans” for how funding for performance-based pay raises would be spent. Walters said he would be willing to work with lawmakers on ironing out the details to provide merit-based pay raises of $2,500 to $10,000 to high-performing educators based on teacher evaluations and professional development.
Walters pushed back when Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, asked whether the state could roll out a pilot program for merit raises in targeted school districts instead of starting the program statewide.
“Utilizing the current evaluation system we have, utilizing the current professional development system we have, I think we have the ability to stand this up in a statewide manner now and feel very good about how effective the program is,” Walters said.
Wearing a shirt that said, “I’m the teacher Ryan Walters warns you about,” Oklahoma City high school teacher Aaron Baker stood in the back of the room for the hearing. House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, who rarely attends legislative committee hearings, also made a brief appearance to listen to the proceedings.
Each year, state agencies submit proposed budgets to the Legislature. Lawmakers then decide what gets funded.