Education superintendent bemoans funding woes

Wednesday, July 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Public schools lost more than $260 million in state funds in the last two years and the quality of public education will eventually decline without more reliable funding, Superintendent of Education Sandy Garrett said Wednesday.

Garrett, speaking to hundreds of school administrators at a Department of Education leadership conference, said she supports compacts with Oklahoma Indian tribes on gaming, tobacco and fuel to diversify revenue sources and raise new funds for education.

``The state of our budget is weak,'' Garrett, standing before a huge American flag, said during her annual State of Education address. ``But the state of our spirit is strong.''

School administrators responded with sustained applause when Garrett called for new investment in public education. A sweeping education reform package in 1990 boosted teacher pay and lowered class sizes.

``Had it not been for the tax increase of 1990, I don't know where we'd be today,'' Garrett said.

Garrett's message was greeted warmly by Gov. Brad Henry, who believes more state revenue should be devoted to public schools, Henry's communications director, Paul Sund, said.

``Gov. Henry believes funding is an important factor in the ongoing efforts to enhance the public education system,'' Sund said.

Henry wants voters to approve a statewide lottery to raise new revenue for schools and is negotiating compacts with tribal governments to collect a share of their tobacco and gaming revenue, he said.

But Henry also believes public schools should be accountable for the state funds they receive to assure ``we are spending our dollars in the best possible manner for our classrooms,'' Sund said.

Garrett said the state ranks 49th nationally in teacher pay and public education has been cut $263.8 million in the last two years due to a revenue shortfall that caused the biggest budget crisis ever in Oklahoma's public schools.

The state's 541 school districts responded by laying off 5,000 teachers and other school workers, cutting administrative costs and making the purchase of education supplies and other school functions more efficient, Garrett said.

The cuts have not eroded the quality of education received by the state's 624,000 school children, Garrett said.

Oklahoma ranks eighth in the nation in the number of nationally certified teachers and second in the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-supported kindergarten classes.

But Garrett warned that public schools cannot sustain those high standards without new investment in children, teachers and education.

``Education is the absolute requirement for sustaining our quality of life,'' she said.

Garrett expressed concern that low teacher pay is forcing experienced teachers to classrooms in states with higher salaries, including Texas.

``That's the real challenge: keeping our teachers here,'' she said.

Garrett said only one-third of teachers graduated by Oklahoma colleges and universities remain in the state.

``Oklahoma has become a teacher factory,'' she said.