Gov.’s education plan ignores public school funding equity, provides tax cuts to only benefit a small percentage of Oklahomans (Capitol Update)

Gov. Kevin Stitt has made a late entry into the school funding discussions between House and Senate leadership with an $800 million three-part plan: $300 million to the “Oklahoma Student Fund;” $300 million into the funding formula based partially on Sen. Adam Pugh’s (R-Edmond) Teacher Pay Raise Plan; and $200 million for the “Oklahoma Parental Choice” tax credit model for parents to send their children to a private school.

To me, there are two big flaws in the governor’s proposal. First, he creates an entitlement program with a first-year cost of up to $200 million in state revenue for a tax cut benefiting a very small percentage of Oklahomans. The entitlement grows to an unlimited amount, which current estimates say would be more than $300 million in year three, by providing up to $6,500 per child in a refundable tax credit, with no cap on income by parents.

According to Private School Review, an organization focused exclusively on providing information about private schools, 38,734 students in Oklahoma attend 222 private schools in the school year 2023. In Oklahoma, 76% of the state’s private schools are religiously affiliated, most commonly Christian and Catholic. In our public schools, 694,253 students attend 1,791 public schools. According to the American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2017 the average number of children per family with children in Oklahoma was 1.9 to 2 children per family. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 1,503,868 households, with and without children, in the state from 2017-2021. 

Assuming the average two children per household, the picture painted by these numbers is that the governor’s $200 million to $300 million or more tax cut program benefits only 19,367 households out of the total 1.5 million households in the state, with no guardrails on family income or growth in the entitlement when fully implemented. That’s less than 2 percent of Oklahoma’s households who send their children to private schools and who would share in hundreds of millions in state income tax cuts at the expense of the remaining 98 percent. One can imagine the ZIP codes of that two percent. 

Another flaw in the governor’s plan is the so-called Oklahoma Student Fund which would send $300 million in state funds to school districts outside the state aid formula. The state aid formula is designed to provide equitable distribution of state funds to local school districts. The formula deducts a percentage of local funding (mainly property taxes) from state funding to equalize funding among districts that are rich in local property values and those that are poor. Districts with more local tax revenue get less state revenue. The formula also weighs students based on the cost of educating them, such as early childhood, gifted and talented, economically deprived, or special needs. Districts get more funding for higher-cost students. 

The governor’s $300 million Oklahoma Student Fund would send money to school districts, capping the amount at $2 million, on a per-student basis without considering any other school district characteristics. The cap will limit the per-student funding for larger metro and suburban school districts and distribute more money to smaller, more rural schools with no other rationale than that they are small enough to not reach the $2 million cap. Funding can be many times more per student than for larger districts.

Ironically, the metro and suburban schools lose state-aid funding, which goes to these same small, rural districts because of valuable manufacturing, large office, retail, and other high-value property within their districts creating local revenue. The governor’s plan will create inequity by requiring the metro and suburban districts to continue deducting their local tax revenue, sharing the state-aid funding they lose with the small rural districts, but then receiving a reduced share of the $300 million of new revenue. The governor’s plan, by ignoring public school funding equity, will create adverse conditions for metro and suburban students to be dealt with, with great difficulty, by future governors and legislatures. All for the sake of a tax bonus for two percent of Oklahoma households.        


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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