Better teacher pay, benefits top education agenda

Sunday, January 25th 2004, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

Newcastle Superintendent Robert Everett can count in dollars and cents the reasons he struggles to recruit and retain qualified teachers for his school district.

He finds himself at a disadvantage in competing with neighboring states like Texas and Kansas where teachers are paid thousands of dollars more.

He saw the same thing when he was superintendent of Woodward public schools, where the promise of higher salaries lured teachers across nearby state lines and turned classrooms into revolving doors.

"It was much more prevalent because we were so close to the Texas border," Everett said. "We do a wonderful job of preparing teachers for other states."

Oklahoma ranks 48th nationally in teacher salaries, a statistic that infuriates educators who have not had a raise in four years.

Boosting teacher salaries to the regional average and giving educators more help with their insurance premiums are at the top of this year's education agenda for state lawmakers, who begin their annual legislative session on Feb. 2.

"That's our No. 1 issue, retain our quality education work force," state Superintendent of Schools Sandy Garrett said.

In September, Garrett and the Board of Education asked the Legislature for $139.8 million to bring Oklahoma's teacher salaries to the average of what teachers are paid in six bordering states.

"Without this funding for next school year, we may be saying goodbye to even more of our wonderful teachers," she said. "National rankings show our teacher quality is top-notch, but Oklahoma's average salary is last in the region and near the bottom nationally."

The request received a major boost from Gov. Brad Henry, who has proposed spending $244 million over five years to raise teacher pay and pick up all of their insurance costs.

Oklahoma's average teacher salary is $34,877, well below the regional average of $38,527, Henry said. The national average is $44,683.

The Oklahoma House's top Republican said he is receptive to Henry's proposal, but wants to know how the governor will pay for it.

"I agree that raising incomes in Oklahoma is a good idea," said Minority Leader Todd Hiett of Kellyville, whose wife is a third-grade teacher. "But at some point, you've got to pay the bill."

Hiett said the governor should support GOP-backed lawsuit reform and workers compensation proposals that he said will help stimulate the economy and produce new revenue to boost teacher pay.

He said Henry should also consider a proposal by Rep. John Trebilcock, R-Broken Arrow, that would exempt 25 percent of the income of new teachers from state income taxes during the first five years of their career.

"That puts immediate dollars in teachers' pockets," he said.

David Goin, superintendent of Edmond public schools, said higher salaries will attract better applicants for open teaching positions.

Graduates of Oklahoma's teaching colleges and universities "are not even giving Oklahoma a first look," he said. "We're not as competitive as we need to be."

Henry has proposed paying 100 percent of teacher's health care in the first year of his five-year program. The health insurance component will cost $64 million.

The state currently pays 58 percent of insurance premiums, school districts pay 17 percent and teachers pay the rest.

The governor said his proposal would, in effect, give Oklahoma's 48,000 teachers a pay raise and the state's more than 500 school districts can use money they spend to subsidize health care on classroom needs.

Henry said the proposed teacher raises can be authorized without cutting other areas of government under his budget, which he will outline when lawmakers convene.

His budget will include, among other things, a proposal to allow three horse racetracks to have electronic gaming devices similar to ones being operated at more than 80 Indian gaming centers across the state.

Henry said that under a conservative estimate, the gaming proposal will produce more than $70 million in new revenue for the state.

Garrett said she welcomed the new revenue source.

"We are very, very receptive to the governor," she said. "We think we're on the same wavelength. We know we are."


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