Oklahoma teachers optimistic about Henry's education agenda

Saturday, February 5th 2005, 4:10 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ First lady Kim Henry stood before an alert class of second graders at an Oklahoma City elementary school and, recalling her own childhood, talked about what she wanted to be when she grew up.

``When I was your age, I wanted to be a classroom teacher,'' said Henry, who taught for 10 years before her husband, Gov. Brad Henry, was elected in 2002.

``Do you know what you want to be?'' she asked.

Students' hands flew into the air like arrows. ``A teacher,'' one said. ``A nurse,'' said another. ``A doctor,'' a student blurted out.

``If you stay in school, you can be whatever you want to be,'' Kim Henry said.

Raising the bar on student achievement is one of the goals of Governor Henry's $114 million Achieving Classroom Excellence public education initiative that will be considered by the 2005 Oklahoma Legislature, which convenes Monday.

The governor's program focuses on raising teacher salaries, paying all of educators' individual health insurance premiums, fully funding all-day kindergarten and college scholarships and improving math skills among middle- and high school students.

The Democratic governor's proposal is likely headed for quick approval after being embraced by Republican House Speaker Todd Hiett, who said much of it is also part of the GOP's education agenda.

``It should be our goal to build the best education system in the nation,'' Hiett said.

Henry has also proposed a $500 million higher education bond issue to improve college campuses and expand classroom space. But plans to pay for the bond package with revenue from a statewide lottery could run into opposition from the House's Republican majority.

Lawmakers may also clash over a Republican plan that could force small Oklahoma school districts to consolidate administrative functions. Rural Democrat lawmakers said it could lead to the closure of rural schools and the decline of many small communities.

A chorus of state educators, led by Superintendent of Schools Sandy Garrett, has praised Henry's plan for public education.

``I think it is sound in every way,'' said Garrett, who credited voter approval of Henry's lottery and gaming proposals last year for making it affordable.

``I'm very pleased to see our revenue streams diversified. We've depended on the same old system for too long,'' Garrett said.

``We are excited,'' said Roy Bishop, an eighth-grade world geography teacher who is president of the Oklahoma Education Association. ``I believe we have fallen behind. Governor Henry is the first governor in a while to address it.''

Henry's plan dedicates $54.8 million for the first year of a four-year plan to raise teacher salaries to the regional average.

According to the National Education Association, the regional average for teacher salaries is $38,993 while Oklahoma teachers earn an average of $35,061, a difference of $3,932.

Oklahoma ranks 50th in the nation in teacher salaries out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the NEA. The national average is $43,400.

The plan dedicates $22.4 million to fully fund a benefits package that pays 100 percent of teacher health insurance costs. It does not include an OEA proposal to pay 25 percent of teachers' dependent health insurance premiums at an additional cost of $32 million.

The plan also proposes spending $24.6 million for all-day kindergarten classes and $8 million to fully fund the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, a scholarship program that offers financial aid to students who make good grades and stay out of trouble.

Many educators credit Kim Henry's influence on her husband and the experience of putting the couple's three daughters through public schools for the governor's education goals.

The first lady accompanied the governor when he unveiled details of his education initiative during a visit to Oklahoma City's Capitol Hill Elementary School.

``I'm so excited to be able to raise the expectations,'' Kim Henry said.

``Governor Henry is married to a teacher,'' Bishop said. ``He knows what it's like to have young children in public schools. He knows the commitment that's made by public school teachers.''

Garrett also had a hand in developing the plan, which requires students to take a college-bound curriculum unless parents opt them out and implements an end-of-instruction testing program that eventually will require students to pass tests in order to graduate.

``I like that. We want to prove that our diploma is worth something,'' Garrett said. ``It's very important for children to have high expectations. We want more college graduates in Oklahoma.''

Oklahoma has 100,000 fewer college graduates than other states its size, according to higher education officials.

Henry is pushing for quick passage of his higher education bond package, which he said includes 140 individual projects that will employ 4,000 construction workers and generate $700 million for the state's economy.

Oklahoma has had only two higher education bond issues since 1968, the last in 1992.

Henry plans to pay for the bonds with lottery revenue. Forty-five percent of lottery revenue is dedicated to higher education, CareerTech and school technology.

Hiett has said House Republicans want assurances that the state will have a substantial revenue source to pay off the bonds before they agree to the plan.