Pugh education
Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond), along with Sen. Kristen Thompson (R-Edmond) and Sen. Ally Seifried (R-Claremore) unveiled his education agenda on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2022. (Tres Savage)

In a press conference this afternoon, Senate Education Committee Chairman Adam Pugh unveiled his personal education agenda for the upcoming 2023 Oklahoma legislative session. Pugh’s priorities include proposals that would hike teacher pay, require school districts to provide 12 weeks of maternity leave and reform various bureaucratic components of the state’s education system.

Pugh’s plan made no reference to the topic of school choice or private school vouchers, which have been articulated as priorities for Gov. Kevin Stitt and new Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters.

Pugh (R-Edmond) emphasized that he was not speaking for the full Oklahoma State Senate on Wednesday, although he presented his plan with new Senate Education Committee Vice Chairwoman Ally Seifried (R-Claremore) and Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Vice Chairwoman Kristen Thompson (R-Edmond), both freshmen lawmakers. Pugh said he spent “the last eight months” developing his plan, and he estimated his proposals would require $541 million in new appropriations for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“I met with over 200 public school superintendents,” Pugh said. “I met with every college president in the state of Oklahoma. I met with hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers and parents and advocacy groups. And the goal there was just to listen and take notes and hear their concerns and find areas where we could work together to advance education and outcomes for our kids — for the state of Oklahoma.”

Pugh said education stakeholders and even his fellow senators are unlikely to support all aspects of his plan.

“Honestly, they may not agree with every single piece of legislation that I have on this plan, but that wasn’t the point,” Pugh said. “The point was that we were going to build relationships, and we were going to work together, and that this plan was the starting point.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) issued a statement about Pugh’s proposals, saying he hopes Pugh “sparks a discussion” on improving Oklahoma education.

“Last year, I asked Sen. Pugh to come up with concepts to improve public education in the state holistically, while getting input from major stakeholders and coming up with a plan to get Oklahoma on the right path for our students,” Treat said. “I appreciate the thoughtful efforts Sen. Pugh put into his ideas. His agenda this session is ambitious and I hope Sen. Pugh unveiling his ideas sparks a discussion with others on how to improve education in the state. While individual members will have their own suggestions on how to improve upon his ideas, it is a great place to start as we put our children, their parents and hardworking teachers first. I have full confidence in Sen. Pugh’s abilities to lead these conversations on this important topic.”

The four R’s

Pugh highlighted 13 specific bills under four categories: reward, recruit, retain and reform. The bills are:

  • SB 482 to provide a teacher pay raise that establishes $40,000 as a minimum starting salary with graduated raises to the minimum salary schedule based on longevity. The estimated cost is $241 million;
  • SB 529 to create an “Oklahoma Teacher Corps” by providing scholarships for students who enroll in and graduate from Oklahoma colleges of education and then commit to four years of service in a Title I public school in Oklahoma. The estimated cost is $15 million, although a similar program created by the Legislature in 2022 — which does not include the Title I school requirement — received an appropriation of $17 million;
  • SB 522 to create a mentorship program that offers $500 stipends for mentors of new teachers. The estimated cost is $5 million;
  • SB 361 to create a multi-state teacher licensure compact;
  • SB 364 to require districts to provide certain teachers at least 12 weeks of maternity leave. The estimated cost is $25 million;
  • SB 523 to provide the Oklahoma School Security Institute with $50 million in grant funding for which schools could apply to meet their security needs;
  • SB 525 to allocate $1 million to reimburse districts to pay for teachers’ recertifications;
  • SB 531 to remove the attendance metric on A-F school report cards and replace it with a “school climate survey”;
  • SB 527 to increase money spent on kindergarten through third grade reading instruction. The “ultimate goal,” Pugh said, is 100 percent reading proficiency for students by the end of third grade;
  • SB 528 to allow students to earn school credit for internships, externships, part-time jobs and other non-classroom activities “that directly contribute to learning or career advancement;”
  • SB 516 to reform charter school governance by eliminating the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and creating a new Charter School Board. The bill would also increase oversight and financial controls over charter schools. The bill is estimated to cost $1.5 million;
  • SB 359 to modify the state school funding formula as it relates to property tax dollars. The bill is estimated to cost $60 million;
  • SB 520 to build three graduation tracks into schools and increase STEM preparedness by requiring students in the college track to have four years of math and science.

“I know this plan is bold, and it’s aggressive,” Pugh said. “I’m here to do big things, and I’m here to do good things.”

When asked why his plan does not include a school voucher proposal — which Pugh voted in favor of last session — Pugh emphasized his plan’s independence from Senate leadership.

“I don’t speak for the Senate. I don’t speak for the pro temp,” Pugh said. “I don’t even speak for the individuals who are up here today.”

Maternity leave, literacy and more

Sen. Kristen Thompson, a freshman who defeated incumbent Sen. Jake Merrick (R-Yukon) in the June Republican primary, compared Pugh’s agenda to a business’ strategic plan and highlighted the maternity leave bill.

“I was really surprised to find out that there is no strategic plan for education in Oklahoma,” Thompson said. “I also learned, just yesterday, that teachers do not get paid maternity leave. I have three children. That was quite shocking to me.”

Pugh ran a similar maternity leave bill in the Senate last session, but although it passed his committee it did not receive a hearing in the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committee. Pugh said he will “work harder” to convince his colleagues of the bill’s importance this session.

“The last thing I want a woman to have to choose is between her career and her family,” Pugh said. “That’s an unfair choice. I’d go as far as to say this is the most pro-life piece of legislation we can have this session — to support a mother who’s having a child and then not having to step away from the workforce.”

Thompson echoed a similar sentiment.

“I have had three children, and I am persistent,” Thompson said.

Seifried said she knows a public school teacher who is facing the prospect of having a child without receiving paid maternity leave right now.

“It’s already happening,” Seifried said. “Teachers are having kids, as they should, and then they’re just not coming back.”

Seifried, who is also approaching her first legislative session, was selected to replace retired educator Sen. Dewayne Pemberton (R-Muskogee) as vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Asked why Pemberton is no longer vice chairman, Pugh said he was “not involved in that decision” and that Pemberton did not articulate a desire to step away from the role.

Seifried also discussed Pugh’s proposed bill to improve reading proficiency for young students, calling it “the bill that I’m the most excited about.”

“We want all our kids to be proficient. And we need to give our students the gift of being able to read and read well, for a variety of reasons, just for their personal enjoyment, but also we know that illiteracy leads into poverty,” Seifried said. “It’s a direct correlation there, so I’m very passionate about it.”

House chairwoman: ‘Improve outcomes for students’

As Pugh unveils his education agenda, others in state government are setting their own priorities for education in the state.

House Common Education Committee Chairwoman Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon) and other House members watched Pugh’s press conference. Baker said the House “has proven itself to be strong supporters of education” and that “this session will prove no different.”

“As legislators, we are all concerned about the state of education in Oklahoma and will be working in the upcoming session to address issues regarding our schools,” Baker said. “I can’t speak to the merits of the Senate education plan presented earlier today, as Sen. Pugh and his Senate colleagues did not consult with House education leadership before presenting the plan.”

Baker said she and her colleagues are focused on ways to “improve outcomes for students and increase value for our teaching professionals.”

“As House Common Education chair, I will continue working with my colleagues, House leadership and other stakeholders over the coming days and weeks to continue to develop educational policies that are reflective of the will of our constituents,” she said. “The House is very mindful of developing education policy that will work for all Oklahomans, regardless of whether they live in a rural, urban or suburban part of our state.”

Meanwhile, some legislators have already indicated potential support for — or have at least predicted — another attempt at a voucher bill.

Walters, the state’s new superintendent of public instruction, has declared a “mandate” for increasing school choice for parents. Additionally, some of his first moves in his role leading OSDE have been to focus on the cultural issues he promoted on the campaign trail, including asking his staff to hold two different teachers “accountable” who have drawn statewide attention for their actions in the classroom. Walters said their actions violated state law.

When asked about these seemingly competing priorities, Pugh declined to give his opinion on Walters’ early weeks in office.

“I go through great pains to not talk about others in this building. I would spin myself in a circle if I had to answer for what every other person who walks in this building every day says or does,” Pugh said. “Again, I would just say, look at this plan, and you’ll see how I’m articulating the value of education.”

(Update: This article was updated at 7:20 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18, to include comments from Rep. Rhonda Baker.)