Has common education been a budget priority?

One of the more contentious skirmishes in the battle over SQ 744 concerns the question of whether, in the absence of a constitutional amendment basing common education funding on a constitutionally-entrenched formula, Oklahoma’s elected officials have neglected K-12 funding.

Supporters of SQ 744 argue that at least in recent years, school funding has not been a top priority of the state’s elected officials. In kicking off the campaign for SQ 744 in 2008, OEA President Becky Felts stated, “If we want better workers, stronger employees, a well-educated workforce, we have to make public education a priority.”  On its website, the Yes on 744 campaign refers to the need to “re-prioritize public education.”  Recently, Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Heather Sparks wrote:

The problem is not that the state doesn’t have the money… The problem is that even in booming economic times, legislators never saw fit to make children’s education a priority. That’s why we need to remove career politicians and bureaucrats from the process of deciding where our children’s schools rank on the list of investment opportunities.
The Oklahoman responded sharply to the assertions that the Legislature has failed to make education a priority. They wrote:

Common education is the single largest recipient of state dollars this fiscal year — about $2.38 billion — and accounts for more than one-third of the state budget… There’s more: During Gov. Brad Henry‘s administration, the state agreed to pay for teachers’ health insurance, teachers received several thousand dollars in pay increases and early childhood programs continued to expand. And when budget-cutting time hit once again earlier this year, lawmakers spared education more than it did other sectors of government. The cuts were still painful, but not as bad they might have been. Does that sound like misplaced priorities?

To see whether common education has or has not been a funding priority, we pulled together the numbers on state appropriations for the last twelve years. The left axis (blue line) of the chart shows annual state appropriations to the Department of Education; the right axis (red line) shows the agency’s share of total state appropriations:

For the current year, the Department of Education’s share of total appropriations is 35.4 percent. This is consistent with most of the past decade; Common Ed’s share of the total state appropriated budget reached a high of 38.2 percent in FY ’04 and a low of 35.2 percent in FY ’10. Since FY ’00, appropriations to the Department of Common Education have increased at an annual average rate of 2.60 percent, while the state appropriated budget as a whole has grown at an annual average rate of 2.75 percent. To the extent that there has been a slight decrease in the allocation of funds to common education, it has been due to the ever-rising costs of the state’s Medicaid program.  During the period from FY ’00 – FY ’11, appropriations to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority have risen at an annual average rate of 10.1 percent, and OHCA has grown from 6.9 percent to 14.8 percent of  total state appropriations. Still, Common Education’s $2,376 million appropriation this year is 2.4 times as great as that of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority ($993 million).

Even showing that Common Education’s share of the budget has remained relatively consistent over the past dozen years is unlikely to settle the debate. Proponents of increased funding for common education can still make the argument that the Legislature could have better funded education – and other state priorities – had it not been for the large and permanent tax cuts that were enacted, or, as Senator Tom Adelson argues in a recent op-ed, if the Legislature had been less generous in granting tax breaks. These are persuasive arguments that we have made ourselves – often to the displeasure of some of those with whom OK Policy is allied on SQ 744. But in terms of allocating the dollars that are available for appropriation, the charge that Oklahoma’s elected officials have failed to make a priority of common education does not hold up.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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