In an effort to keep Oklahoma both economically and educationally competitive into the next century, a Senate leader is proposing a $199.7 million education investment and reform program that would finance teacher pay raises, technology improvements and college scholarships, among other things.
"The one consistent piece of advice we've gotten from all the economic experts is invest in your schools if you want your state to be prosperous. The states that build the best education systems are going to attract the best jobs of tomorrow. This program will give Oklahoma a chance to be an economic winner, not just in this decade, but in the century to come," said Senator Darryl Roberts, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
Roberts unveiled his "Partnership in Excellence" program with other Senate leaders at a State Capitol news conference today. The Ardmore legislator is planning to finance the program with growth revenue produced by Oklahoma's expanding economy.
The key components of the program include:
"We're trying to hit the areas where we have the most needs, where we're the farthest behind our economic competitors. Without question, our teachers are at the top of the needs list," said Senator Roberts, noting that Oklahoma currently ranks 47th in teacher pay according to U.S. Census statistics.
"If we're going to entrust teachers with our children and the future of our state, we need to pay them a decent enough wage to attract and retain the best and the brightest."
The program also emphasizes new technology for public schools, an area in which Oklahoma also trails competitors. According to the State Department of Education, Oklahoma has a lower percentage of classroom computers and internet connections than most other states.
"Students have to be ready for the next grade. They also need to keep up with changing technologies, just as businesses do, or they won't be able to compete in the classroom or the working world. We want to give our children the best chances of learning possible to ensure they succeed," said Senator Penny Williams, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
"School readiness is equally important. Money invested in pre-school and parent education will yield maximum results."
Another key component of the package is a college scholarship program designed to reward above average students in financial need.
"With the rising costs of college, more and more middle class kids are getting squeezed out of the higher education market. That limits their future earning opportunities and hurts our economy. With the EXCEL and CENTURY programs, we'll put more people through college, increase their personal income and build a highly-skilled labor force. It's a win-win deal for our people and our economy," said Senator Roberts.
According to statistics from the U.S. Census, Oklahoma trails the national average in its percentage of college graduates. Research indicates that the highest-paying jobs of the future will go to the states with the most educated work forces, but Oklahoma will need to add another 72,000 grads just to reach the national average.
"The best economies of the future will belong to the best educated states. It's just that simple. That's why education is so crucial to our overall economic development strategy," said Senator Ted Fisher, chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee.
"All the studies indicate we've done a good job of reducing business costs and creating a friendly business climate, but we haven't succeeded at producing the skilled workers we need to land the best jobs. If we don't get serious about investing in education and improving our public schools, the economic successes we've enjoyed in recent years are going to come to an end," added Senator Roberts.