A controversial, cost-shifting education program drafted by the Governor's office will get a full review from a key legislative committee in the coming weeks, according to the leader of the Oklahoma State Senate.
The report (Senate Website Administrator's note: this file is in .pdf format only), released by Governor Keating's finance office, suggested that teacher pay hikes could be financed with existing school dollars if state officials would consider cutting lunch programs, raising class sizes, reducing the number of public school students and terminating any excess teachers.
"I don't think those proposals make any sense and I oppose them, but I want to give Governor Keating and his people the opportunity to explain why they think it's a good idea. I don't see how cramming more kids into each classroom or taking food out of the school cafeteria is going to improve our public education system, but that's what the Governor has suggested so we'll review it," said Senate President Pro Tempore Stratton Taylor.
"I'll also be happy to put the package to a vote in the Senate as a courtesy to Governor Keating, but I can't think of any Democrats who will support it."
The Senate leader has assigned the proposal to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, which will conduct a thorough review.
The report by the Governor's office suggested a variety of initiatives that it contended would free up an additional $205.9 million for a teacher pay hike. The proposals that will be reviewed by the Senate panel include:
The Governor's report concluded that "significant gains could be made" if all of the proposed reductions were taken enacted together rather than individually.
"Common sense would seem to dictate that raising class sizes, cutting school lunches and reducing student services won't make your local school any better, whether they're done together or individually. I don't see how we advance the cause of public education by getting rid of teachers when we're already facing a teacher shortage. I can't think of any other state that is taking such an odd approach on public education, but the Governor's office seems committed to it," noted Senator Taylor.
In responding to media inquiries about the education report on Tuesday, Governor Keating's chief of staff Howard Barnett defended the study, saying it was important to look at such cost-savings within Oklahoma's public education system. National comparisons, however, rank Oklahoma in the bottom ten when it comes to funding its public schools.
"It's pretty tough to squeeze any significant new money out of an education budget that's barely on life support now. If the Governor thinks he can wring some cash out of the school lunch program or student counseling services, I'd certainly like to see how," said Senator Taylor.
"Our teachers deserve pay raises, but I don't think we should take the money out of the classroom or the cafeteria to finance them."
The Senate leader said he expects the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education to begin its review of the Governor's plan in January. As part of its review, the panel may question the study's authors, Dr. James Wilbanks and Shawn Ashley.
"Hopefully, we can complete the review before session begins in February so we can be ready to take a vote on the program after the Governor formally proposes it in his state of the state," noted Taylor.
The legislative session convenes on February 7th.