WASHINGTON — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt says computer science education, an increased focus on career tech and higher teacher pay are keys to the future industries of Oklahoma.
While in Washington for the National Governors Association’s winter meeting last weekend, Stitt said he foresees a day when Oklahoma teachers will earn as much as $100,000 a year.
“One of my priorities this year is to unleash some pay for performance. We want to keep our best and brightest in the classroom,” Stitt, who is facing reelection this year, told Gaylord News. “I want teachers to be able to make $100,000 a year and stay in this profession.”
During the four-day meeting, governors held policy discussions on infrastructure, bi-partisan leadership and the importance of K-12 computer science education. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, chairman of the NGA, emphasized the link between increased student digital literacy and a stronger workforce.
Computer science education has been a priority for Hutchinson and Arkansas is ranked first in the nation for accessibility to computer science courses, with courses in 92 percent of high schools. A 2021 State of Computer Science Education report estimated that 53 percent of Oklahoma high schools offer a computer science curriculum, putting the state 27th in the nation.
“We’re going to lead in training the talent for the digital age,” Hutchison told his fellow governors during the conference.
Last year, Stitt signed into law SB 252 , which requires that all public high schools offer at least one computer science course by the 2024-25 school year. In 2020, only 37 percent of Oklahoma high schools offered computer science courses, but that number rose significantly in 2021.
“We know that training our workforce for those jobs of tomorrow is the most important thing we can do,” Stitt said. “As the governor and leader of Oklahoma, I’m just trying to learn and put our state in the best spot for success in the future.”
Under SB 252, sponsored by Sen. Brenda Stanley (R-Midwest City) and Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon), schools that do not have a computer science teacher can offer an online course with a remote teacher.
‘The different trades are so important’
Stitt said commerce focused on the electric vehicle industry will be part of Oklahoma’s future as an energy producer. Canoo, an electric car company, plans to bring research and development centers to Tusla and already has a factory in Pryor. The governor met with Toyota and General Motors while in Washington and said he sees Oklahoma leaning heavily on electric vehicles in the future.
Stitt said making sure students learn computer science and other STEM subjects will be crucial to building Oklahoma’s economic future. He said Oklahoma should be focusing more on career tech and getting more high school students into STEM, engineering and the trades after graduation.
“We want to make sure that career paths are very well established for high school kids that maybe don’t want to become an engineer, but they want to become an electrician, or a plumber or HVAC,” Stitt said. “All of the different trades are so important, and we’re trying to create those pathways to make sure every kid has a great opportunity coming out of Oklahoma high schools.”
Oklahoma schools are currently experiencing a teacher shortage because of COVID-19 surges. Recently, Stitt signed a law allowing state employees to serve as substitute teachers to fill staffing gaps. Stitt said he thinks the teacher shortage will be a temporary issue and will not affect any future plans to expand computer science programs across the state.
“We were just trying to fill the needs and make sure that our schools stayed open. Because the No. 1 priority is to make sure our kids are not getting behind,” Stitt said.
In 2018, Oklahoma passed a law that provides $3,000 to $5,000 extra to teachers who mentor other teachers. And some Oklahoma districts also offer additional pay based on performance and mentorship.
Stitt pointed to a pay-for-performance program used in Texas as a possible model for for how to incentivize younger teachers to stay in classrooms rather than move toward administrative roles.
The Texas program, called the Local Optional Teacher Designation System, was created in 2019 and has been met with backlash. Although teachers’ average salary increased by $7,000, the Texas American Federation of Teachers has called the program “ill-conceived.”
However, the Texas Education Agency reported the state’s teacher turnover rate fell to its lowest level in ten years during the 2020-21 academic year of 2020-2021.
The governor said he also hopes to increase Oklahoman’s engagement in local schools by moving school board elections to November.
“School board elections have never been more important,” Stitt said. “Right now, school board elections are held in April. Like, nobody knows about them. Nobody votes in them. So I’m trying to get those moved to the general election timeframe.”
Senate Bill 962, proposed during the last legislative session by Sen. Greg Treat (R-OKC) would shift school board elections to November, but the Oklahoma State School Boards Association has opposed the measure, saying it would invite party politics into non-partisan races.
Stitt said education’s role in Oklahoma’s future is significant.
“We are hyper-focused on training the workforce,” he said.
The NGA winter meeting and the Republican Governors Association winter meeting took place over the same weekend and Stitt emphasized the benefit of both gatherings.
“It’s great to be here and meet all my colleagues from around the country that we talk to on the phone all the time. It’s just neat to be together,” Stitt said, “It’s a neat time to come represent Oklahoma.”