Oklahoma has not had a great standing when it comes to education.
From the National Census Bureau, the state ranks 47 in the nation for education and last on teacher salaries.
A CNBC report shows the annual mean wage for an Oklahoman teacher is $42,460. States like Alaska and New York offer their teachers wages ranging between $75,000-$82,000.
John Massey has been the Chair of the Oklahoma State Regents for 27 years. His concerns for a better education system mirrors many in the state.
“Higher education has never been more critical to the future of the our state than it is now,” he said.
On March 23, the Oklahoma State Board of Regents met to announce their action to improve educational standards.
In this meeting, an Education Task Force was created. Their objective is to improve degree completion, to increase productivity by focusing on modernization and innovation, and to examine budget inaccuracies.
Deadline for the task force is set for December of 2018.
The task force is made up of the following: State Regent members, private citizens, college and university representatives, Governor Mary Fallin designee Natalie Shirley, Speaker of the House of Representatives Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz.
Natalie Shirley is the President of Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. She is also the Secretary of Education and Workforce Development on the Governor’s Executive Cabinet.
At the head of the task force is Dr. William Kirwan. He is the Chancellor Emeritus of University System of Maryland and the fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
According to the press release, “Citizen members of the Task Force will be well-respected Oklahomans who come from a variety of professional and educational backgrounds and represent different geographic regions with the state.”
According to Michael McNutt, the Press Secretary for Governor Fallin, he isn’t sure if he’s seen any actions from the task force since their announcement.
6 months later, the State Board of Regents would have their second official meeting on the task force objectives.
Glen D. Johnson is the Chancellor for the Oklahoma Board of Regents. After the vote to approve the task force, he said, “there’s not only a commitment but excitement” for the prospect of a committee to regulate funding for education.
“We’re putting everything on the table,” Johnson said. “I see this task force as a wonderful opportunity to set the record straight, fix what needs to be fixed and move forward. I’m very supportive of it.”
While some have met the task force with praise, others remain skeptical.
Oklahoma Democratic Representative Jason Dunnington believes that the plan has the possibility to waste money and resources. His option consisted of writing a bigger check for education.
“We have to fund it first,” he said, “then we can look at waste, fraud and abuse.”
By legislative act, the task force was formed to stop any additional spending. This was put into action in hopes to change the outcome of future budgets.
Reactions of the task force has been met with skeptical optimism.
25 year old Casey Garrett works as a teaching assistant in Oklahoma City Public Schools. She was heartbroken when news of the budget cuts were announced. As news breaks about the task force, she feels the same pit in her stomach.
“Of course I hope that this task force finds a leak so we can all be paid what we’re due,” Garrett said. “My fear is that they will consolidate money for what they think doesn’t mean anything. But it means something to us.”
The word “consolidate” has not been been used in any government documents; however, it’s been implied by those in the legislature.
“I don’t want to criticize the legislators but I’ve always felt that teachers were more important to the future of this state than anything the oil companies ever did. Maybe we could take all the money that’s going to other places and put it into something that’ll benefit people for the long run,” she said.
This education task force is another action put forth by the State Board of Regents and the Oklahoma Legislature to counter the budget bill passed in May.
Lawmakers had to bridge a $1 billion gap in the state’s budget. Before the final day of legislative session was done, a $6.8 billion budget bill was passed.
Outrage surfaced almost immediately after news of the budget cut made it into the mainstream.
Representative Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she was very disappointed by the budget.
“This budget is not the way to fund core services, and a few of the measures that fund this budget we know will be challenged in court,” Virgin said. “Some of them, if not all of them will be struck down because they are taxes that we have done unconstitutionally. Really we need to come back in a special session and do this the right way.”
Representative Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, echoed Virgin.
“It’s very frustrating. We have to follow the constitution,” Munson said. “If this goes to court and is ruled unconstitutional then we will be back here in just a few months to find a way to get revenue back into the budget, or agencies will see more cuts later on in the year.”
Virgin and Munson were able to predict the near future. By August 17, Oklahoma City Public Schools started suing the Oklahoma Legislature for their lack of funding.
Mark Mann is a member on the Board of Education. He said in a public meeting they will look into law firms that will take the case and create a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Legislature.
“When they undoubtedly go into special session this fall they can fix the old convinced revenue measures that have been struck down, or will be struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court,” Mann said.
The next meeting for the State Board of Regents is set for October 18. An agenda for meeting has not been placed as of this report.