In Gov. Frank Keating's State of the State address four weeks ago, education was the first issue he discussed. It got top billing in President George W. Bush's address to the nation last week.
In the Legislature, House and Senate Democrat leaders have stressed education as their number one priority. On their agenda House Republicans put education at the head of their list.
This is not surprising. It is important, and there are good political reasons to do it.
Not only in the Legislature but in the business community and the public's mind, Education is the absolute epitome of popular buzz words. Mention it to civic and business leaders and the response will be a solemn nod of the head followed by an intense discussion on how Oklahoma is lagging in education.
Suggest the word to a group of parents and you get the same response, preceding an animated conversation that nothing is too good for their children, particularly football and baby-sitting.
Speak of it to teachers and you will hear about low pay, better financing of their retirement system, greater benefits and the need for more teachers.
Even the most cynical will agree productive education of our children is a serious matter. The important point to remember is that education is in the mind of the individual. It means many different things to many different interests.
Certainly our children are being educated. They are educated hourly and daily from birth. It occurs in the home, in nurseries, day care centers, on the playground, in the streets, and in our schools. The real question is how and about what are they being educated.
It is in our schools where the issue focuses on the state's common education system. That system accounts for 37.7 percent of the state's total budget. Higher education gets 15.6 percent of it. Between them they get $2.8 billion of the $5.3 billion state government is spending this fiscal year.
Not enough, cry Democrat legislative leaders.
Raise salaries, exhort the teachers.
We need to do more, claim the business leaders.
The problem arises when we try to decide what we mean by the word education.
As much as some might like, we cannot spend our entire budget on it.
The difficulty comes when we try to allocate limited funds to certain priorities. It is at this point where the meaning of education seems to have different strokes for different folks.
What Keating proposed for the common school system is an additional $80 million to be spent through various block grants. They are intended to bring greater focus on learning and teaching core curriculum in all schools.
To qualify schools must offer and require six academic hours per day. They would also have to require four years each of math, science, English and social studies.
Matching grants would be designed to encourage reduced spending on administrative overhead and funnel the savings to the class room.
The February issue of Perspective, a publication of the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs, offered an explanation.
Take a public school classroom of 17.4 students (the Oklahoma average for 1999) and multiply by $5,347. That is the cost per student per year. It totals $93,038. If you subtract the average teacher's salary of $30,851 from that you get a 'whopping' $62,187.
Where is that going?, it asks.
Student achievement …