Oklahoma teachers struggle amid rise in healthcare costs

Published: Mar. 16, 2022 at 8:22 PM CDT
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LAWTON, Okla. (KSWO) - 2021 was a pivotal year for funding education in Oklahoma, going from $2.4 billion in 2018 to $3.2 billion for fiscal year 2022.

Those efforts did not go unnoticed by educators across the state.

“They have, since 2018, turned the tables around to reinvest in public education and they gave teachers a raise,” said Sherri Brown, a retired Putnam City School teacher.

“Since 2017, right before the teacher walkout, they gave teachers a huge raise, they’ve added a billion dollars to education since then,” Lawton Public Superintendent Kevin Hime said.

But skyrocketing health care costs, taking a large sum of a teacher’s paycheck if they cover their spouse and dependents.

“There are some teachers who work for insurance,” said Teri Wilson, a teacher at Jay Public Schools. “If they have to cover their husband and children, they have no money.”

Oklahoma passed legislation in 2004 to have 100 percent of insurance premiums covered for public school teachers. Even that, Governor Stitt said , is a fight to maintain.

“There’s a finite amount of money in the state,” Governor Stitt said. “If we can’t hold those health care costs down everywhere, then we can’t give those benefits to teachers and state employees. It’s something every business fights and is frustrated with. It’s a national problem.”

But in Lawton, Hime said the district works to find ways to compensate teachers to lessen the blow of health coverage for their families.

“The back-to-school bonus was nice, the Christmas bonus was nice because it’ll give them a chance to have Christmas at home,” Hime said.

While a solution to healthcare has not been found, Governor Stitt’s plan is to bump up salaries through House Bill 4388 and some teachers could stand to make $100,000 a year.

“We’re trying to use some matching funds to specifically go to salaries to teachers,” Stitt said.

House Bill 4388 passed through committee last week and would dedicate lottery profits to support those salary increases. The Governor explains who would identify those deserving of the raise.

“That’s going to be with our principles, parents know,” Stitt said. “I talked to parents last year and they request what teacher to have. We want to give those tools to the principals to make those decisions.”

However, Hime can’t see how that would even be possible.

“We can’t expend any money without board approval, and the only person a board can communicate with is me,” said Hime. “The law wouldn’t even allow that to happen.”

Secretary of Education Ryan Walters clarifies what Governor Stitt said, explaining there are different ways teachers can show their excellence.

“There could be a lot of other data points or types of evaluations teachers can do, peer type evaluations, third party evaluations, data that could be collected, a portfolio that could be put together by a teacher,” said Walters.

Right now, the legislature is negotiating a budget for 2023, which has to be approved by the end of legislative session in May. Until that time, large salary increases like the one Governor Stitt proposed are up in the air.

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