Despite numerous promises by Oklahoma lawmakers that this would be the year they begin undoing K-12 education cuts and funding a desperately needed teacher raise, ultimately too many of our legislators refused to raise revenues. Unsurprisingly, a new update from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows Oklahoma continues to lead the nation for cuts to our state aid formula since before the Great Recession.
The report, aptly titled “A Punishing Decade for School Funding”, shows that 29 states are still providing less general school funding per student than they were in 2008. When it comes to general state aid — the most important funding source for Oklahoma schools’ daily operating expenses and the salaries of teachers and other school staff — Oklahoma’s cuts are by far the worst. After inflation and enrollment growth, our percentage cut to state aid increased this year to 28.2 percent. No other state even tops 20 percent.
Oklahoma’s meager $2-per-pupil increase this year was not even enough to keep up with inflation, much less to offset the state’s $1,058-per-pupil cut over the previous nine years.
Oklahoma moved up in the ranks for cuts to total state funding of schools, too. From 2008 to 2015, the state reduced total school funding by 15.6 percent, seventh worst in the nation. Combined state and local funding levels are down by 11.8 percent, eighth worst in the nation.
Despite attempts by some education funding opponents to shift the blame for what’s happening in our schools, cuts of this magnitude cannot be wished away. The overwhelming reality is that underfunding — not administrative costs, color copies, or some other excuse — is the reason why Oklahoma’s teacher shortage is getting worse, schools are hiring more and more underqualified teachers, and one in five school districts in the state are no longer holding classes five days a week.
It’s also no coincidence that seven of the twelve states with the biggest cuts in general school funding since 2008 ― Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma ― have also cut income tax rates in recent years. The cost of income tax cuts and of huge tax breaks for oil and gas producers have overwhelmed all other attempts to raise revenue.
These cuts are weakening Oklahoma’s economy both today and for years to come. Businesses are refusing to move here because their employees don’t want to put their kids in our schools. Besides, quality elementary, middle, and high school education provides a crucial foundation that helps children to succeed in college and in the workplace. Much of the money they earn as adults is returned to the state economy through taxes, home purchases, and spending at local businesses.
In addition, school budgets that force school layoffs or cut pay for teachers and other staff can reduce purchasing power and slow the overall economy. The Center on Budget’s report finds that K-12 public schools employed about 135,000 fewer people in fall 2017 compared to fall 2008, even though enrollment nationwide was up by 1.4 million students. The most recent date for Oklahoma shows public schools employ 4,900 fewer workers compared to 2009 (a 5.3 percent decrease). Over that same time, enrollment in Oklahoma increased by nearly 48,000 students (7.4 percent).
“At a time when the nation is trying to position every child and every community to succeed in today’s economy, states should be investing more — not less — so our kids get the best possible start in life,” said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the report.
Unfortunately, that seems to be a lesson not yet learned by Oklahoma lawmakers — at least not enough of them to make a difference.