— Editor’s note: This story covers the first portion of the State of Education luncheon held Monday. The local education portion will be covered in part two on Wednesday.

Yesterday, Ardmore got a firsthand look at what the future of education in Oklahoma might hold. 

Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Federal Programs Matt Holder presented the State Department of Education’s 2020 budget request to a crowd during the Ardmore Chamber of Commerce’s State of Education Forum held Monday. The new budget request would total about $440 million more in state-appropriated funds than last year’s education budget. 

“This budget really reflects what we’ve been seeing from teachers, principals, and superintendents,” Holder said. 

The request reflects the department’s shifting priorities. While last year, teacher pay raises were the number one concern, Holder said the new budget request focuses on broader changes to education. 

“We’re very thankful (pay raises) happened, but there’s more work to be done,” Holder said. 

The bulk of the funding would still be set aside for state funding formula, which calculates the amount of state aid each school gets. Holder said bills that change the formula in some way can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what school district one is in. 

“Any time there are changes to the formula, there are going to be winners and losers,” Holder said. “We all need to pay attention to that.”  

The department will request $272 million in additional funding for the formula in an effort to reduce class sizes within the state. Holder referenced state data that showed an increase in the number of registered Oklahoma students, but a stagnating number of Oklahoma teachers.

“Last year, when things happened with the teacher walkout, I hope you listened to your teachers,” Holder said. “It wasn’t just about about salary, it was about the things that are provided within a school. (It was also) class sizes, professional development, counselors, people in their schools that can help them with their students.” 

The request also sets aside about $500 million, or 15 percent of the request, for Flexible Benefits Allowance, teacher health insurance. Holder said the department is also trying to bolster career guidance efforts with more funding and professional development for staff to address high dropout rates and low graduation rates. 

“(Career planning) is going to be mandatory in all high schools shortly, but it really needs to start as early as sixth grade,” Holder said. “So that by the time they’re juniors, they know whether they want to go to concurrent enrollment or votech. They know what direction they’re going.” 

Holder said in addition to guidance counseling, the department found a significant need for more counselors and mental health professionals in schools. Holder said the department is focusing more on trauma and the way it effects students as they try to learn. The department will also request more funding for alternative education.  

“There are numerous things that can cause trauma,” Holder said. “What we don’t have in our schools is the right number of counselors and… I’d venture to guess there’s not that many (Licensed Professional Counselors).” 

He said the current student-to-counselor ratio in the state is 435 to one. Holder said the department is using federal grant money to train counselors in some schools, but there’s still a long way to go before the gap is bridged. 

After his presentation, local superintendents and administrators gave brief updates about their schools before taking one-on-one questions from attendees.