OKLAHOMA CITY — Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories reflecting on Gov. Brad Henry's time in office.
By Trevor Brown
CNHI Capital Bureau
OKLAHOMA CITY – The nickname of the “education governor” began to follow Brad Henry during his first gubernatorial campaign in 2002.
On promises to improve teacher pay and strengthen all levels of public schooling, Henry captured the governorship and would win re-election four years later. As Henry enters the final weeks of his tenure, education leaders and lawmakers give mixed reviews to the governor's impact on the state education system.
Henry, himself, said he is unsure whether his legacy as the education governor will live on after he leaves public office.
“I'm proud of what we've done in education, but I don't know if that merits being dubbed the education governor or not,” he said. “I'm proud to be called that, and I hope my legacy is remembered as one who did more for education than anyone else … but that will be for the pundits and historians to determine.”
Plaques honoring Henry for his support of academics are showcased along one of the walls of the State Capitol Building's Blue Room. In a Blue Room interview earlier this month, Henry said he will be leaving public office with few major regrets regarding his education agenda.
Henry, who is married to first lady Kim Henry, a former teacher, followed his education-centered campaign with several high-profile moves that began early in his administration. Among the major initiatives he oversaw were:
• Pushing the state to pay 100 percent of insurance premiums for teachers
• Boosting early-childhood and pre-kindergarten programs
• Helping create the Education Lottery Fund that provided education with more than $350 million since it began six years ago
• Approving a $475 million capital improvement bond issue for higher education
• Signing the Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE) Act to create stricter education standards
Henry said the Achieving Classroom Excellence initiative was one of the most significant changes to the way education works that was made during his administration. When the legislation passed in 2005, it created new graduation requirements for middle and high school students.
More importantly, Henry said it provided money and programs for services to help students who did not meet the standards. For fiscal year 2009, the state provided $8.6 million for the remediation programs, which included extra tutoring and online course work.
“The ACE initiative was a major piece of reform legislation that raised standards and accountability in the classroom for students, for teachers (and) for administrators,” Henry said. “It gave consequence to end-of-instruction exams (so they pass) or they don't graduate.”
The initiative is a phased-in approach and many of the new testing requirements began in the past couple years. However, initial successes are already being seen.
The state Department of Education reported that eighth-graders in the original participating schools increased their math scores by 20.4 percent in the first year during 2006.
Efforts to increase teacher pay
Oklahoma Education Association President Becky Felts said Henry's education achievements are impressive but far from perfect.
Felts, as well as Henry, acknowledge one glaring disappointment during Henry's tenure: The failure to meet the 2002 campaign pledge to increase teacher pay to at least the average of surrounding states.
At the start of Henry's term, the average Oklahoma teacher earned about $33,200 – which was more than $7,000 below the regional average and $12,000 below the national average.
Henry said increasing the pay was critical to retaining and attracting the best educators.
“They are some of the most incredible people in our state, in our country and in our world,” Henry said while reflecting on his goal to pay teachers more. “There is no other profession that makes a bigger difference on our future than that of an educator, so I hoped we could pay them what they deserve.”
During his first term, it appeared Henry would accomplish the task. In 2004, he signed bills for the state to pay 100 percent of teacher health benefits and to begin implementing the salary raises. By the 2006-2007 school year, the average salary for an Oklahoma teacher came within nearly $1,000 of the regional average of $43,511.
But budget shortfalls at the start and end of his second term, which began in 2007, stalled the goal. Lawmakers responded to the shortfalls by cutting funding to almost all agencies, and budget increases have been rare during his final years.
“The bottom began to drop out of the economy and so we haven't been able to complete that job,” Henry said. “It is something I hope future governors and legislators will be able to take a serious look at. It is the least we can do to pay our educators – I'm not even asking at this point for the nation average, just the regional average.”
Henry concedes the creation of the Education Lottery Trust Fund was another of his campaign hopes that did not fully live up to its promise.
Henry led the effort to create a state lottery to provide money solely to fund education in 2004. Legislators passed a bill to send the issue to voters, and the state question was easily approved. Henry and other leaders predicated initially that it could generate about $300 million a year.
But the program, which began in 2006, so far has contributed an average of less than $80 million per year to education. Henry said the lottery could have generated much more money if legislators left in a video lottery component that would be offered at retail locations.
“People will say it has not lived up to what I said it would live up to, but what I said on the campaign trail in 2002 was based on a different set of circumstances,” Henry said. “It was based on what some states like Oregon had done and West Virginia had done, whose lotteries were producing nearly a billion dollars a year in total revenue.”
But that does not mean Henry regrets spearheading the charge to create the lottery.
“In general … the education lottery is still good for education in Oklahoma,” he said. “Just since its inception in October of 2005 we have raised about $375 million for education and that is pretty good.”
Moving forward on how to fund education
The economy aside, Felts said Henry and lawmakers — during the past eight years — should have found the money to pay teachers more and improve Oklahoma's 49th ranking among states for the amount it spends per student.
That is one reason the Oklahoma Education Association supported State Question 744 the past election. The OEA and other education advocates hoped to force the state to meet the education spending average of surrounding states.
Henry became a chief opponent of the measure because he said the proposal did not identify a funding source for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost. The state question failed, but Henry said the state still needs to find a responsible way to generate more money for education.
Henry acknowledged the state's budget situation is difficult. But he said finding a new funding source for education, such as he did with the lottery, should be an option for Gov.-elect Mary Fallin and the next legislature.
“I think everything needs to be on the table for the next governor and legislators to consider,” he said. “Now that the State Question 744 vote is over, all parties should come together in a cordial civil discussion – a summit, an education summit and think session – and figure out how to build a consensus to get a solution on how to pay for reforms.”
But Henry said the discussion cannot stop there. He said how new or existing money is spent is equally important.
He suggested these reforms could follow the model of the Race to the Top application that Oklahoma submitted earlier in the year.
Washington leaders rejected the state's bid for a share of the federal funding through the program. But Henry said the state could still carry forward with plans it outlined, such as creating new ways to evaluate educators, instituting performance-pay options for teachers and providing more support to the state's lowest-achieving schools.
“Simply throwing money into the pot does not necessarily produce a result,” Henry said. “If you couple that with money, appropriate reforms with accountability and oversight (and) make sure that money gets to teachers to raise teacher pay, then I think it will make a difference.”
Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI. He can be reached at email@example.com.
National average for 2002-2003: $45,771
Regional average for 2002-2003: $40,913
Average in Oklahoma for 2002-2003: $33,277
National average for 2006-2007: $51,009
Regional average for 2006-2007: $43,511
Oklahoma average for 2006-2007: $42,379
National average for 2009-2010: $55,350
Regional average for 2009-2010: 46,933
Oklahoma average for 2009-2010: $44,143
Source: American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association
Oklahoma high school dropout rate
2002-2003: 6,421 students (3.6 percent)
2003-2004: 6,217 students (3.5 percent)
2004-2005: 5,682 students (3.2 percent)
2005-2006: 5,798 students (3.3 percent)
2006-2007: 5,768 students (3.2 percent)
2007-2008: 5,214 students (2.9 percent)
2008-2009: 4,118 students (2.3 percent)
Source: State Department of Education
Henry credited for higher education support
Glen D. Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, said the state's public universities and colleges also improved significantly under Henry's leadership.
Johnson credited Henry for looking after the long-term care of the higher education institutions by improving the $475 million bond issue. The money allowed all 25 campuses to receive new or improved buildings.
And in the short term, Johnson said Henry helped establish or fund programs to increase access to higher education.
An example, he said is the support Henry provided to permanently fund Oklahoma's Promise, which is a program that pays in-state tuition to a public institution for eligible students. The scholarship program grew from benefiting about 2,000 students in 2001 to more than 19,000 in 2010.
"Perhaps Governor Henry's biggest contribution to Oklahoma higher education was his steadfast determination to provide our state colleges and universities with the funding needed to assure a quality education for our students,” Johnson said. “In good economic times and bad, our students could count on Governor Henry to support them.”
How two state legislators rank Henry's education work:
Sen. Jim Halligan, D-Stillwater, who also is a former president of Oklahoma State University: “I salute (Henry) for what he's done. And during the two years I have served during his administration, I felt the government was committed to all phases of education through some tough economic times.”
Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee: “I don't know if we addressed all the major concerns in education that we have. There are still problems, and I haven't really seen anything innovative. I would say overall he's done an average job. We've done a lot of tweaks, but we haven't really hit anything out of the park.