Rep. Baker: State must see return on education investment

Public schools receive record appropriations in new budget

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District 18 State Sen. Jack Stewart (R-Yukon) discusses the recently concluded 59th Oklahoma legislative session during the June 6 Yukon Legislative Breakfast at Archery Traditions. At left is Steve Carson, field representative for U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma). At right is District 60 State Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon). (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)

By Conrad Dudderar
Staff Writer

State legislators worked hard to ensure public schools received strong funding support in the state’s new record budget in return for offering tax credits for school choice, a Yukon lawmaker says.

The 59th Oklahoma Legislature ended after the state House and Senate adjourned May 26.

Over 16 weeks, state legislators negotiated and ultimately passed a state-record $12.8 billion budget.

The new state budget features record appropriations for the Department of Education totaling $3.9 billion – a more-than $800 million increase. Meanwhile, many state agencies were held flat and saw no new funding.

State. Rep. Rhonda Baker

“With the funding that we have devoted to education, we’ve got to make sure we’re reaping rewards in the end,” District 60 Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon) said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re starting to rise in our rankings. If we continue to remain stagnant or drop, there will be cuts to education. That’s where we’re at.

“We have really spent a lot of time trying to do what we can to support education. And we’ve got to see that return on our investment.”

The most challenging legislative session of Rep. Baker’s career has been during her freshman year with the teacher walkout in 2017.

This year’s session was almost as difficult and stressful.

It was an especially busy one for the former teacher, who chairs the House Common Education committee.

“Nothing could get done until we had an agreement on education,” Baker told the Yukon Legislative Breakfast audience.

“What we got in the end was a really great package for education. It took a lot of work to get those agreements between the Senate and the House and the Governor. … We had an historic budget for education; actually, an historic budget overall.”

The State of Oklahoma – financially – is doing well, Baker pointed out.

The Legislature gave stair-step pay raises to Oklahoma teachers based on years of experience.

  • $3,000 for teachers with 0-4 years
  • $4,000 for teachers with 5-9 years
  • $5,000 for teachers with 10-15 years
  • $6,000 for teachers with 16-plus years

“We were able to put together a maternity (leave) package to incentivize new moms that want to become teachers,” Rep. Baker added. “That’s an issue that’s become pretty important nationwide and really in Oklahoma. We’re such a strong pro-life state.”

The record education appropriations include increased funding for literacy and school security.

The budget process took considerable “behind-in-the-scenes” negotiations at the State Capitol, Baker noted.

TAX CREDITS

A controversial topic during the session saw legislation passed to provide tax credits for families who want their children to attend private school or be homeschooled.

“The House was strongly opposed to vouchers, and we felt like the voucher plan that was proposed last year literally was taking money away from public schools,” Baker shared. “If the student left the public school to go to a private school, the way last year’s plan was, the funding from their public school would have followed them.”

Realizing school choice is an important issue for parents, the House decided on an alternative to vouchers.

“The tax credit is something that is strictly between the taxpayer and the state,” Baker explained. “The state is not handing over money to the private school.

“We knew that if we were going to give a tax credit for school choice, we wanted to make sure that our public schools were funded strong.”

Oklahoma’s newly passed state budget includes some tax reductions – but not broad-based tax cuts like an individual tax reduction or elimination of the sales tax on groceries that Gov. Kevin Stitt wanted.

“The Senate has not been real favorable toward tax cuts,” District 18 Sen. Jack Stewart (R-Yukon) said. “There’s about $1 billion more in the budget this year than last. We just want it to be sustainable.

“Too many of the (legislators) that have been in office six, seven years were in there when they had those hundreds of millions of dollars of debt going into a session. They want to protect and never let that happen again.”

Although the state Legislature officially adjourned two weeks ago, senators and representatives are still participating in one special session – with the possibility of Gov. Stitt calling another.

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RYAN WALTERS

Rep. Baker was asked at the June 6th Yukon breakfast about outspoken Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters.

Since taking office in January, Walters has challenged administrators and the teachers’ union on how public schools are being run while advocating for parental school choice.

House Education Committee leaders asked Walters to “come in and answer our questions,” Baker said.

“At first, he refused,” she related. “As an elected official, you have that responsibility. There’s never been an agency head that’s been called up to the Capitol to testify that has not shown until him.

“But he did come after the PR was getting so bad for him. When he came, he literally brought his busload of supporters with him. When we go up to the committee room, they are lined up along the walls. They thought it was going to be a ‘lynching’ and we were going to come after him, but we just had questions. In any committee hearing, we might ask some tough questions, but we’re always respectful.”

Rep. Baker said she receives regular emails from constituents asking when the House will start impeachment proceedings against Walters.

“We have to make sure there is evidence of wrongdoing,” she stressed. “He’s creating a lot of fervor around what he’s doing. We’ve got some issues with the grants but we’re monitoring that very carefully.

“For all the people that are saying ‘impeach, impeach’, there are just as many that are reaching out to me going, ‘Finally, we’ve got somebody that’s going to clean up our schools’. They’re a lot of parents that feel like he’s fighting for them and he’s not fighting for the superintendents and the administration.”

GARY RIDLEY MEMORIAL INTERCHANGE

This was Sen. Stewart’s first session at the Oklahoma State Capitol representing District 18, having taken office in November 2022 after being elected to a four-year term.

Working through the legislative process has been an eye-opening experience for the freshman senator.

State Sen. Jack Stewart

“There are so many ways that bills can die,” the former three-term Canadian County commissioner told Legislative Breakfast attendees. “We start out with 4,000, 5,000 bills at the beginning of session and everybody says, ‘How can you handle that many?’

“They start falling out quick.”

Sen. Stewart tried to run 12 bills through the session. Three of those were not even heard in Senate committee hearings while two were not heard on the Senate floor.

Of the remaining seven bills, one failed on the House floor after passing through a House committee. Two other bills passed the full House then came back to the Senate with amendments – but were never assigned to committee so they died as well.

That left four of Stewart’s bills that passed both chambers to await Gov. Stitt’s signature.

He co-authored legislation to name an interchange at Interstate 35 and Highway 51 near Stillwater in memory of Gary Ridley, Oklahoma’s longtime transportation secretary and transportation department director.

A Yukon resident, Ridley died in December 2022.

“That interchange was rebuilt 10-15 years ago,” Stewart said. “It is a tremendous interchange now. It’s got double lanes off, double lanes on. It’s just as safe as can be. Traffic doesn’t back up at all. It flows through.”

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