The leader of the Oklahoma Senate wants an all-day kindergarten proposal and a teacher pay raise program to be considered in the ongoing school reform debate at the State Capitol, saying Oklahoma can't afford to neglect its youngest students or the people who teach them.
"I think we're kidding ourselves if we believe we can send our kids to kindergarten for a couple of hours a day and expect them to be top-notch students when they hit the first grade. We're also fooling ourselves if we think we can pay our teachers some of the lowest salaries in the country and have a top-flight education system," said Senator Stratton Taylor, President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
Currently, public schools are offering approximately two and three-quarter hours of kindergarten education each day. Some schools have expanded to full-day kindergarten on their own initiative, but the bulk of five-year olds approximately 75 percent are in class for just two and three-quarter hours. Senator Taylor contends the abbreviated class day is not sufficient for students entering the 21st Century.
"The experts keep telling us that the early years are the most important time in our children's education, but we aren't reaching enough of those kids during that critical period. Schools are doing a good job when the children are there, but two and one-half hours of instruction just isn't enough to give them the skills they need for the new millennium," said Senator Taylor.
In addition to all-day kindergarten, a teacher pay raise program should be part of the ongoing education debate, according to the Senate leader. Teaching doesn't generate the attractive salaries that other professions do, said Taylor, noting that Oklahoma currently ranks 44th in teacher pay.
"Given the state of teacher pay in Oklahoma, who among us would encourage their young son or daughter to choose teaching as a profession? Who among us would recommend to any young person that they choose teaching over other professions in light of today's economic environment?
"Until we boost salaries to a respectable level, we¹re going to have to resign ourselves to the fact that the best and brightest are either going to leave Oklahoma for better teacher pay or choose an entirely different profession that pays a better wage. Either possibility hurts our school children and our state," said Taylor.
The Senate leader wants Oklahoma to reach the regional average in teacher salaries in the next four years.
Boosting teacher pay and expanding kindergarten opportunities for Oklahoma children won't be free, Taylor acknowledged. Full-day kindergarten, for example, will require additional teachers and better transportation for new students, especially those from working families who may have difficulty getting to and from school.
"All of the reforms we¹ve discussed this year, whether it¹s 4x4 or college scholarships, cost money. If we're serious about doing something dramatic in education, and I think we are, we also have to be serious about paying the bill that goes along with it," said Taylor.
The Senate leader noted that Governor Keating has compared Oklahoma's efforts to improve education to the nation's race to land a man on the moon, a comparison Taylor embraces, but with one notable addition.
"We certainly need the equivalent of a moon shot in education, but it's important to recognize that it took fuel to get a rocket to the moon. When we talk about fuel in terms of school reform, we're talking about money. There is no free lunch when it comes to improving education," said Senator Taylor.
"The important thing to realize is that while money alone won't solve the problem, neither will reforms without funding. If we just pass reforms and don't give schools the financial tools to implement them, it will just be an exercise in futility. Until we start talking about putting the best person in the classroom, implementing all-day kindergarten and footing the bill for those reforms, we're simply not serious about improving our public schools.
The state's tight budget outlook has complicated this year's education reform debate, but Taylor said Oklahoma shouldn't put off its most pressing needs because of some short-term funding challenges. He wants policy leaders involved in the school reform debate to make a commitment to improve the public schools and then do whatever it takes to realize that goal.
"When we committed to construct new highways in our state, we said that we were going to use the best technology and newest design available to build the safest roads in the world. We never said it wasn't going to cost money. On the contrary, we said we wanted to address our highway needs in a visionary manner and we approved a billion-dollar bond issue to pay for it," noted Taylor.
"If we can make a commitment to build a billion dollars in roads, we must make the same kind of commitment to our most important resource. We need the equivalent of a bond issue for our human capital our children."
"Can you imagine what prospective industries must think when they look at state education spending and they find Oklahoma ranks 50th?" asked Senator Taylor.
Despite the challenges awaiting state policy makers, Taylor said he is encouraged by the spirit of the education reform discussions thus far. The House, the Senate and the Governor have all offered school reform initiatives this session. They have also appointed a bipartisan panel to sort out a compromise reform package.
"We're all moving in the same direction, but we haven't agreed on the best way to get there. I don't think any one of us has all the answers, but if we continue to work together, the best ideas will ultimately emerge.
"This is one of those rare times when all parties seem to be on the same page on an issue. We have a golden opportunity to improve education in Oklahoma. I don't know if we'll be able to find the money this year, but I'm prepared to do my part to do whatever it takes to fund meaningful education reform," said Senator Taylor.