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Oklahoma Schools To Share in Energy, Industrial Wealth

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While some states are struggling to keep their schools afloat, Oklahoma is in the enviable position of being economically healthy enough--thanks to increased manufacturing and oil and natural gas production--to upgrade teachers' salaries and create a new computer center within the state department of education.

The state legislature is considering a Common Schools Appropriation Bill that would raise average teacher salaries in the state by $2,000, from $16,000 to $18,000. Oklahoma's 30,000 teachers are currently among the lowest-paid in the Southwest.

The proposal, which represents a 12.5-percent increase over the previous year's figure, has not met with any serious opposition. "We can afford it now," said Stephen P. Matthews, a senior administrative assistant in the office of Gov. George Nigh.

Because of what Mr. Matthews called a "mature" manufacturing sector (the largest producer of state wealth), new plant equipment, a productive labor force, and large oil and natural gas revenues, the state enjoyed a $300-million surplus last year and expects another one this year of from $300 million to $500 million.

Oklahoma's population has been growing since the 1960's, reversing a 30-year decline, and in 1979 the state had the largest growth of per-capita income of any state in the nation.

"But we're still playing catch up," Mr. Matthews said, adding that Oklahoma's per-capita income is still slightly below the national average.

Although the state's blue-collar wages are near the national average, according to Mr. Matthews, and its oil and gas workers are among the highest paid laborers in the country, the relative position of teachers' salaries is still low. Average salaries of teachers in the state rank 35th in the nation and next to last in the Southwest, according to the Oklahoma Federation of Teachers.

According to the National Education Association, the average teacher's salary nationwide in 1981-82 was $18,976. The current raise would still leave Oklahoma teachers below the national average in absolute terms. However, in "relative" terms, the state's teachers fare better than these figures indicate, Mr. Mathews said, noting that Oklahoma has among the lowest state taxes in the country.

Distribution Debated

Governor Nigh originally set the raise, which is part of the $760-million school appropriation bill, at $1,600. The State Senate approved a $2,000 figure that the House accepted, but the distribution of the raise--whether it is to be across-the-board (the House version) or paid on the basis of experience through a formula that has not yet been developed (the Senate version)--is still being debated.

In either case, $84 million of the bill, which finances all state education activities, would go toward the raise.

With a probable commitment of $1 million over the next five years, resulting from the state's new affluence, Oklahoma is also taking a leadership role in the area of com-puters in schools, according to Susan L. Wheeler, administrator of the new "Instructional Computer Resources Section" in the state department of education.

The section is developing a curriculum guide on "microcomputer literacy" for use in the 1982-83 school year; has begun curriculum-development projects in conjunction with local junior and senior high schools; and is formulating a curriculum-development process within the department using the skills of higher-education consultants and computer experts in the schools.

The chief goal of these projects, Ms. Wheeler said, is "to teach the students to use the computer as a tool."

The state's survey of computer use in its 1,785 schools showed 831 computers in use in the 660 schools (37 percent) that responded.

Most respondents expressed a need for more information on computer use in schools and better courseware.

The resource center was modeled on efforts of such states as Minnesota, Florida, California, and Oregon, that have led the way, she said. The center will work in coming months with other state education departments in the Southwest interested in starting similar programs.

The Oklahoma center, in conjunction with the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Tex., will soon house a hardware- and software-technology center.

"The economic health of the state definitely helped" to get the center started, Ms. Wheeler said.

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