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'Contentious and clunky' education funding stalemate ends with $785 million package

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers a press conference on Monday surrounded by House and Senate leaders. The administration unveiled an education funding package worth $625 million in recurring funds and $160 million in one-time funds.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers a press conference on Monday surrounded by House and Senate leaders. The administration unveiled an education funding package worth $625 million in recurring funds and $160 million in one-time funds.

After a months-long standoff, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and legislative leaders are celebrating a deal on this year’s education budget worth $625 million in recurring funds and $160 million in one-time funds.

The breakdown

$625 million of recurring funds

  • $500 million to the funding formula:
    • $3,000-$6,000 certified school employee pay raises calculated by years of experience
    • Six weeks of paid maternity leave for teachers
    • Increasing the weights - and therefore the funds - in the formula on certain factors largely to benefit rural districts: transportation, economically disadvantaged students. It also lowers the threshold for more small schools to be eligible for extra funding
  • $125 million to the Redbud Fund, which benefits districts located in regions with below-average property taxes to use for building and infrastructure improvements

$160 million of one-time funds

  • $10 million for a three-year reading proficiency program
  • $150 million for a three-year school safety and security pilot program

Notably absent from the package is a major sticking point for House Republicans — the creation of the Oklahoma Student Fund, which would have given smaller districts more money per-student than larger districts. Senate leaders say rural communities are getting a boost through other mechanisms, such as increasing the weights in the funding formula and bumping up the Redbud Fund.

The deal was hashed out through a conversation mediated by former State Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor. Last week, Stitt told reporters leaders were close to a deal, but Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat said in a press conference later that day even though they thought an agreement had been reached the night before, the House came back the next morning with different demands. Treat said the move left them “further away today than we were yesterday.”

The long road to a deal

That was one of many contentious moments throughout the session over the package, which began with an ultimatum from Speaker of the House Charles McCall that the Senate couldn’t amend any of his package, threatening to reject any amendments sent by the other chamber.

Another battle played out over passing voucher-like tax credits that would give private school and homeschool families public dollars to use for tuition and expenses. While the bill passed the Senate and the House, McCall used an obscure procedural move to “capture” the bill — meaning the House held onto it instead of letting it go to the governor’s desk — giving the House some leverage over negotiations.

At Monday’s press conference, McCall said the House will “decide as a caucus” how the tax credit bill will now move forward procedurally.

“At this time, we are committing to moving [the tax credit measure] to the governor, and we’ll see what manner the caucus wishes to follow,” McCall said.

The governor also inserted himself into the funding fight, vetoing bills authored by Senators who opposed his education package. Among the vetoes was a bill to allow protective orders to be filed on behalf of abused children.

On the Senate side, Treat has been calling for public negotiations for a while, saying Oklahomans should know what issues are on the table. That public meeting nearly materialized at the beginning of the month when Treat and State Superintendent Ryan Walters agreed to meet for the roundtable, but without RSVPs from McCall and Stitt, the talk was canceled.

Edmond Sen. Adam Pugh, who largely shepherded the Senate’s education package, said it’s been a grueling process.

“But when I walk in the door of this building, it sounds corny, but I say to myself every day, ‘tension is a feature of our system and not a flaw.’ But we try to treat it like a flaw because it doesn’t mean we get everything we want, and it can be contentious and clunky, and sometimes we can grate and grind on each other,” Pugh said at the press conference. “But the three most important numbers in this building are 25 [Senate votes], 51 [House votes] and 1 [governor], and none of us can ever forget that — that it takes a lot of work to get our colleagues on board.”

Stitt touted the funding package as “historic.”

“We put more money in education over the last five years than any other governor in history,” Stitt said. “This is a win for every single student, every parent.”

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.