Do not sacrifice public education 

The state's economy is going from bad to worse. Shortsighted spending has left us facing the most serious crisis in fiscal responsibility in history.

The failures by Oklahoma's Legislature " the highest paid regionally " to incorporate long-term incentives, government and educational reforms, and diversification of our industry base have left us hanging out to dry. Contentment with primary tax revenues from the energy sector alone will cost us dearly. Failure to grasp that educational superiority means more jobs and new industries will be hard to overcome now.

Oklahoma's future is in the classroom. The realities are stark: Nationally, Oklahoma is ranked 42nd in teacher pay and 46th in pupil expenditures. A 2008 report found that less than 50 percent of students in Oklahoma City Public Schools graduate. And of those nationwide students that make it to college, 25 percent drop out as freshmen.

We expect our major college teams in this state to rank in the top 25 nationally, yet we accept low rankings in public education without insisting on making education a priority with more spending, resources and technology. Why not demand the same high performance in education? Is it no less important?

The best educational system would mean the highest rankings for economic enterprise and growth. We train the best teachers, but lose them to surrounding states. The average pay for a teacher in Oklahoma is $43,551. In Texas, teachers earn an average of $46,179. Oklahoma teachers receive a health insurance benefit of $442 monthly for individual coverage, but nothing for family. With out-of-pocket expenses for family coverage, this can add up to a quarter of an experienced teacher's pay. Do the calculations on what that leaves in salary for a mortgage, car and essentials. It is not just about wages.

Yet legislators in Oklahoma, who are supposedly part-time, receive $38,400 annually, twice the seven state regional average of less than $19,000. They also are paid $18,000 annually for health insurance.

It is time for change and accountability not only in education but government. During difficult times, businesses bite the bullet and find efficiencies. So do households. We have to demand efficiencies in government. In this fiscal crisis, Republicans argue for a slash and burn reduction in expenditures, and education is getting hit hard. Social programs in mental health and family subsistence are being eliminated. The most in need will suffer the most. And under this approach, the negative impacts will be long-term and possibly irreversible. Cuts in public education will hurt us greatly.

We cannot sacrifice public education. It is our future. With dismal statistics, it is almost impossible to convince corporations to consider new futures in Oklahoma.

Jobs depend on a well-educated workforce. Our economy depends on job creation. For years, we have done nothing or too little. Now we, and especially our children, are paying a huge price. We argue over a broken system.

Legislators, stand up and act in the best interests of our students. Instead of arguing over educational reform, work with the Oklahoma Education Association, government agencies, chambers, communities and parents to develop solutions to meet the needs of our students, raising teacher's salaries and making our education initiatives the best in the nation. 

We must demand accountability from elected leadership to reasonably address this state budget crisis and act on long-term solutions. Legislators ask accountability and sacrifice of taxpayers. We need to demand accountability and solutions of them. Our future depends on it.

Busey, an Edmond resident, is chairman and CEO of The Busey Group of Companies.

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Phil G. Busey Sr.

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