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While the 2019 legislative session was not as attention-grabbing as last year, public education still claimed a number of victories this session. In 2018, the Legislature passed a historic funding package that increased teacher salaries by an average of $6,100, but put very few additional dollars into the state aid formula to help restore a decade of budget cuts. This year, our priority was to increase state aid funding so that schools could begin to reduce class sizes, hire additional support staff and school counselors, and bring back programs such as art and music.
Fortunately, the Legislature heeded this call. The final budget package dedicated $157.7 million more for common education, which included increasing state aid formula funding by $74.3 million and giving teachers an average $1,200 raise. While this new funding boost does not fully restore a decade of budget cuts, the added state aid is an important step forward.
Our other priority was to restore funding to higher education, which has been harmed even more by budget shortfalls over the past decade. Funding for higher education is 26 percent below 2008 levels, and institutions have been forced to increase tuition and cut programs and staff. This year higher education received $28.6 million in new funding which can be used to increase faculty salaries, fund concurrent enrollment, and for other capital investments.
Bills may signal a commitment to future education funding
Last week’s passage of SB 193 (Sen. Pemberton and Rep. McBride) may be a sign that the Legislature is committed to funding education in the years to come. The bill reinstated certain class size requirements and other guidelines that had been waived for well over a decade due to insufficient funding. These guidelines will be phased in when schools are given the resources needed to meet the requirements. For example, SB 193 will require districts to meet class size mandates for kindergarten and first grade (no more than 20 students without an assistant teacher) in 2021-2022 if the amount of state aid appropriated in FY21 exceeds the FY19 budget by $100 million. Restoring class size limits for students in kindergarten and first grade aligns with research which shows that small class sizes are most beneficial in the early grades, and it is a critical step toward reinstating class size limits for all grades. The bill will also restore media personnel and other advisory committee requirements in the 2019-2020 school year because state aid (excluding funding for teacher’s salaries) increased by at least $50 million.
Another significant bill signed during the last week of session was SB 441 (Sen. Quinn and Rep. Baker), which aims to place restrictions on districts that have 4-day school weeks. Eliminating 4-day school weeks was a top priority for Senate Republicans who emphasized the importance of class time for academic achievement. While the final version of this bill still permits 4-day school weeks, districts will now have to meet certain cost savings and academic performance guidelines set by the State Department of Education in order to maintain or implement the shortened week.
Establishing transparency and protecting state aid funding
A slew of bills this session were designed to place greater financial transparency and regulations on virtual charter schools. The Governor signed a key bill that holds virtual charter schools to the same financial reporting requirements as brick and mortar schools, and subjects virtual charters to a few additional guidelines. This bill is the right first step to better understand how virtual charter schools utilize state aid and ensure all schools receive a fair portion of state dollars.
Two bills were introduced this session to expand the scholarship tax credits, which could have diverted up to $30 million in tax credits to individuals or corporations who donated money to pay for private school scholarships or donated to public schools. During a time when public schools are still struggling to climb out from a decade of budget cuts, protecting Oklahoma’s tax revenue by defeating these bills was a win for public schools.
While the legislature showed a continued commitment to help schools dig out of a decade-long budget hole, next year we will continue to advocate for additional state aid funding to fully revitalize public schools. The Legislature failed to pass a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for retirees who have not seen an increase in over a decade, and we hope the legislature will reconsider this bill next year. In addition to ensuring that schools are adequately funded, we will also focus attention on securing equitable funding across districts. In this vein, SB 362 (Sen. Stanislawski and Rep. Baker) would have made important adjustments to the state aid funding formula including increasing the weight for economically disadvantaged students. This is an important modification to pursue next year.
While higher education will certainly feel some reprieve from this year’s funding increase, continued investment in higher education is vital to reducing tuition and bringing back programs that have been eliminated over the past decade.
Lastly, a few bills were introduced this session which would have allowed schools to implement alternatives to out-of-school suspension and expulsion, but unfortunately none of them made it to the Governor’s desk. These measures are key to reducing racial disparities in school discipline and addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. Advancing these measures will be a priority for next year’s session.
[Image Credit: US Department of Education / Flickr]