Thanks to “fake news” from the liberal news media, Oklahomans are not getting a true picture of state funding of public education, according to Rep. Michael Rogers, R-Broken Arrow.
Rogers, who was a school administrator before running for office, is chairman of the House Common Education Committee.
“The reality is that the newspaper business today is all about trying to get readers and headlines and not quite telling the whole story,” Rogers said in an interview on Tulsa Beacon Weekend, a show on KCFO AM970.
Rogers said his committee is always unfairly being compared to the 2008-09 school year.
“When I got sworn in in 2014, that’s the number one thing I kept hearing – 2008 – and we’ve got to get back to those funding levels,” Rogers said.
To check the veracity of those comments, Rogers investigated the numbers from 2008 plus five years before 2008 and five years after.
“It was interesting to see that 2008-09 was the high-water mark in the history of education for the state,” Rogers said.
That piqued his curiosity and wanted to find out what happened that year.
“We had so much money at that time,” Rogers said. “Oil and natural gas was rockin’ and rollin’ – over $120 a barrel for oil at the time. The Rainy Day Fund had so much money that constitutionally had to overflow and all that money got thrown in a about a two-year period, about $350 million additional dollars got put into common education.
“But what they don’t tell about the story is that in the following year, 2009-10, it dropped about $310 million because of the recession. Everybody felt it.
“But the media doesn’t want to tell that story. And they don’t want to tell the story that since then, the total funding has continued to climb every year.”
Common education gets state funds, local funds and national funds.
“The state gives over 50 percent of our appropriated dollars directly to education,” Rogers said “Billions of dollars. That’s right off the top.”
Rogers said Oklahoma is No. 17 or 18 in the nation on the amount state government appropriates for public education.
Yet the liberal news media consistently claims that Oklahoma is “No. 49 or No. 50” among the states in education.
“Those are the numbers you hear all the time,” Rogers said. “They say we are 49 in this or 50 in that. What you have to read into it also is they throw we are 49th with costs adjusted for inflation. My rebuttal always comes back to we are 32nd if you take in account cost of living.
“To me, let’s just use the raw data. Let’s just say, as a state, here’s where we are. When you look at cost of living, we are one of the lowest in the country. We are number three (lowest) in cost of living, the last I saw.”
Rogers said Oklahoma is constantly compared to Texas. The majority of Texas funding comes from local funds (like property taxes).
People say that Texas pays higher salaries than Oklahoma.
“But their minimum salary schedule is lower than Oklahoma by about $3,000,” Rogers said. “It’s $28,000 a year.
“It’s supply and demand. Last year, in Dallas independent school districts alone, they were 30,000 teachers short,” Rogers said. “Thirty thousands teachers short in just one school district. Supply and demand tells you they are going to have to pay more to get teachers in there, so they do.
“But it’s a tough school district. There’s a reason why they are 30,000 teachers short. Teachers don’t want to teach there. If you go there, they will pay you $50,000 to start, which is great, but guess what – your property taxes are going to be double or triple what they are in Oklahoma.”
Rogers did some research. He lives in Tulsa County and the property taxes for his home is around $3,000 a year. For the identical house in Texas, the bill would be $7,000.
“Texas also doesn’t pay 100 percent of the teacher benefits like the state of Oklahoma does,” Rogers said.
Rogers said he feels like it is part of his job as committee chairman to point out these things to the Oklahoma public.
“If we really want to retain or recruit teachers, then we need to put more money into their pocket,” Rogers said. “We need to put more money into the classroom.”
Rogers tells people to visit the office of their school district and look up how much they are actually putting into administration, as compared to teacher salaries.
“Percentage-wise, you will be shocked,” Rogers said. “As a state in general, we are in the fifties. Only 50 percent of the dollars are actually getting into the classroom.”
Rogers said all of the high-performance states spent at least 65 percent of their funding in the classroom and for teachers. Actually, rural Oklahoma districts do better than urban districts in directing funds to teachers.
“If we are going to be serious about education, let’s put all the facts out there,” Rogers said.
Lawmakers can only set the minimum teacher salary. Teacher salaries are set by local school boards, based on the recommendation of district superintendents and administrators.
“The state has a minimum salary schedule which I am not a fan of,” Rogers said. “To me, it gives districts permission to pay teachers less.”
Districts already essentially make their own minimum salary schedules, Rogers said.
“When the state has a minimum salary schedule, it’s always easier to blame the state,” Rogers said.
Rogers wrote a bill to try to fix that in the 2017 session but the education union tried to kill it and it never got passed. That bill would have raised the state minimum by $1,000, $2,000 and $3,000 over the next three years after passage.
And the GOP gets no credit for rebuilding the teacher pension fund, which was dangerously low under Democrat leadership.
“When the Republicans took control of the Legislature, the teacher retirement fund had a $16,000,000,000.00 unfunded liability,” Rogers said. ”It was only 40 percent funded. Most people will tell you that once you get below 40 percent, a pension fund is considered bankrupt.
“Republicans said that we have made this commitment to teachers, especially to retired teachers, and we need to fund this properly. So, we have started putting about $300,000,000.00 off the top of the budget into that fund.”
Since 2008, even during a recession, that liability has dropped from $16 billion unfunded to $8 billion and now stands at about 67 percent in terms of being fully funded.
“Nobody wants to give us credit and really saving that fund because for 100 years, it was unfunded,” Rogers said. “And we could have easily let it crash and it would have been laid at the feet of the Democrats. But we did what we thought was right.”