As students head back to school this month, they will encounter an education system facing a crisis in funding. Over the past four years, state support for public schools has been slashed by $220 million, or 11 percent, while school enrollment has increased by some 25,000 students. This equals a 14 percent decline in state support per person. In schools across the state, class sizes are larger, course offerings are fewer, and many school services have been reduced or eliminated. At the same time, schools are wrestling with new mandates for student testing, teacher evaluations, and reading proficiency that must be implemented with reduced resources. Meanwhile, Oklahoma voters this fall will vote on two state questions that would reduce local property tax revenues for schools, while federal education support could be cut by roughly one-tenth to one-fifth under various deficit reduction plans.
Oklahoma voters are paying attention and expressing their discontent. Eight-eight percent of Oklahoma voters are very concerned (64 percent) or somewhat concerned (24 percent) about cuts to local public schools, according to a new Oklahoma Poll published in the Tulsa World. More than three in five voters (61 percent) believe that the state Legislature is not doing enough to fund public schools in Oklahoma. The poll also found that more than nine in ten voters said that a candidate’s position on funding for public schools is very important (65 percent) or somewhat important (29 percent) in determining their vote in November’s elections.
These findings that education funding is a major concern for voters reinforces an earlier poll conducted while Oklahoma legislators were considering proposals for major income tax cuts. Only 16 percent of Oklahoma voters said they would “favor cutting funding to Oklahoma’s public schools so that the savings can be passed along to taxpayers in the form of a tax cut”, compared to 81 percent who disagreed, including 67 percent who disagreed strongly.
In recent years, education has not been a priority of Oklahoma legislators. Most areas of state services absorbed cuts when the state was grappling with large budget shortfalls. But even though total appropriations has increased this year by $253 million, education funding has remained flat. Common education’s share of total appropriations has fallen to 34.1 percent, the lowest level since at least FY 2000. These polls results show that voters are paying attention and aren’t happy about the Legislature’s priorities. Whether legislators and the Governor heed the message remains to be seen.