At what price? Some fear that Oklahoma schools are not just broke, but broken (Oklahoma Gazette)

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by Peter Wright, Oklahoma Gazette

Only two states cut per-pupil spending more than Oklahoma in the last five years, according to a recent think-tank report. While it appears nearly impossible to determine what funding is adequate for education, it is inarguable that funding for public schools in Oklahoma has decreased. With an eye on unpredictable state and federal budgets, education leaders are talking about the need for more money.

The study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending in the state decreased 20.3 percent from fiscal years 2008 to 2013. Alabama was second from the bottom, and Arizona had the biggest decrease. The study found Oklahoma spends $706 less per student now than it did in 2008 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Such a big drop and low ranking came as a surprise to many observers. Several years of cuts to state appropriations for public schools, increasing enrollment figures, standard inflation — and even a temporary boost from federal stimulus funds — all had a role in the reduction.

In FY 2009, the peak in common education funding, the state Board of Education received about $2.53 billion. In the current fiscal year, that number will be closer to $2.3 billion, a decrease of more than 10 percent.

The Legislature reduced state funding for common education in subsequent years, and is keeping the appropriation essentially flat in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of public school students has increased every year for more than a decade. According to the state Education Department, public school enrollment grew from 641,721 in fall 2007 to 666,150 in 2011.

Appropriations for public schools have consistently accounted for about 35 percent of the total state budget in the past five years, but that figure dropped to 34 percent in the current fiscal year. Public education often received more than 35 percent of the budget prior to 2006.

Not a good measurement 

State Superintendent Janet Barresi said that while the reduction in per-pupil funding may be alarming, it is not necessarily the best way to measure the success of schools, pointing to improv ing scores on some state-mandated tests as another indicator. 

“Perhaps the conversation does not need to be focused on a single metric, but on funding results,” she said.

Barresi said school districts should focus on becoming more efficient and direct as much money as possible into specific programs and classrooms. 

“That really is the single most important thing,” she said.

Barresi is requesting a budget increase of about $300 million more than last year’s figures. During the last legislative session, lawmakers declined her office’s request for an increase of nearly $158 million. The budget stayed flat, aside from a small special allocation.

Among other things, the money goes toward textbooks, alternative education programs, nutrition plans and transportation, in addition to the salaries and benefits of teachers and administrators.

A growth in funding is not a bad thing, Barresi said, provided it is done with enough transparency and accountability.

“It’s very important that I put as much information as I can in the hands of legislators,” she said.

Teaching on hold 

Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Karl Springer said it’s difficult to measure educational success in financial terms, but added that perpupil funding is one of the best ways to weigh the effectiveness of a dollar. He would like state funding to return to its 2009 level. 

 “If you were to boil it down, that’s the number we need to look at,” Springer said.

His district, the second largest in Oklahoma, has felt the halting effect of a shrinking budget. In 2009, the state gave OKCPS $106.9 million from its funding formula, which allots money based on enrollment and other factors. This year, the district will receive about $92.7 million in spite of enrolling several thousand additional students. 

Districts, including OKCPS, will work within the budget they’re given, Springer said. The notion that money isn’t reaching classrooms is misguided because, at least in his district, about 80 percent of funding goes to teachers’ salaries and benefits. When the budget contracts, that leaves little room for anything else. 

“We’ve just really worked on thousands of little things to try to put off spending money, and at some point we’re going to have to start spending money again,” he said. “The bottom line is we want to be able to improve our programs and provide more to the kids.”

With more dollars, Springer said he could put math teachers and reading specialists in every elementary school and physical education teachers in every high school, and could give raises to teachers more often.

Adapting to a tighter budget has been a painful process for OKCPS. In the summer of 2010 the district laid off 50 administrative workers and instated furloughs, which amounted to a 10 percent pay cut. Buildings were kept warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. Bus routes were redrawn to increase efficiency. 

“You have a very narrow window of time with which to make reductions,” said Scott Randall, OKCPS senior finance officer.

He said the district needed to be pessimistic. The reduction in state funding came amid the economic downtown and dwindling federal stimulus money that was leaving an unfilled fiscal hole. Because districts plan their budgets before they know how much money they’ll receive, uncertainty often wins.

Morale slumped, and that’s the biggest — yet hardest to measure — effect of budget cuts, Springer said.

The arguments

Jonathan Small, fiscal policy director for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free-market think tank, said the success of charter schools and some lower-tuition private schools suggests there could be more cost-efficiency in public schools.

“We’re not getting the most value out of what we’re spending per student,” Small said. 

He said a number of strategies — allowing school choice with public money, introducing more technology and encouraging schools to compete — would lead to academic improvement with a cheaper price tag. 

“I think that the first thing we have to do is get the funding more closely tied to the students,” Small said.

But Gene Perry, a policy analyst for Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank, said it’s clear that schools are underfunded. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2009 and 2011, some 4,000 K-12 jobs were lost, some of which were teachers.

If schools are improving their standardized test scores, Perry said, it’s because of dedicated staff. 

“The schools are doing the best they can with limited resources, and they have been doing this a long time,” he said.

Those sentiments are shared by longtime teacher Clifton Ogle, president of the American Federation of Teachers of Oklahoma. Eeven if the majority of the 4,000 lost jobs were not teachers, he argued, layoffs still hurt the success of schools. People underestimate the importance of nurses, custodians, bus drivers and office workers to the fabric of education. 

“We’re asking students to develop very complex social skills and acquire knowledge, which is modifying human behavior, and that doesn’t take just the teacher,” he said. “It takes a lot of people.” 

Ogle said Oklahoma has never given enough money to schools.

“We hear time and again money is not that important,” he said. “I don’t know how they would know. We’ve never tried it.”


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