It’s well known that state aid funding in Oklahoma has struggled in recent years — since 2008 we’ve cut per student state aid by 24.2 percent after inflation, the largest drop in the U.S. Cuts to state aid affect all school districts in the state, but not all districts are affected equally. Because state aid to local districts is based on a formula that takes into account the needs of students and the local resources of districts to fund themselves, the amount per student that’s funded by the state varies widely between districts. In the 2015-2016 school year, aid went from a low of $16 to a high of $7,740 per student.
You can see the per student state aid funding for each Oklahoma school district in the map below. Click here to open an interactive map as its own tab and click here to download the data in Excel. The map reveals a couple of trends — the highest levels of per-student state aid tend to be found in districts in southeast Oklahoma, while the lowest state aid tends in be in northwest Oklahoma districts outside of the panhandle.
The district with the most per pupil state aid
To better understand why Oklahoma has such large gaps in state aid funding between districts, we can look at those districts receiving the most and least state aid per student. The district with the highest per pupil state aid is Eagletown Public Schools, located in McCurtain County in the far south of Oklahoma on the Arkansas border.
In the 2015-2016 school year, Eagletown received $1,153,308 in state aid with an enrollment of 149 students. That works out to $7,740.32 per student, almost three times the non-charter school average of $2,787.38 per student. Why did Eagletown receive such an outsize share?
To understand why, the first step is to find the weighted enrollment of students in Eagletown. The calculations behind every district’s weighted enrollment can be found here. First, although 149 students were enrolled in Eagletown in 2015-2016, the state aid formula looks at the average daily membership of students in the district for the current and previous two years and uses whichever number is largest. Eagletown’s highest average daily membership was 212.12 in 2014, so their state aid calculation begins with that number rather than 149.
The formula also gives different weights to students at different grade levels and for students with special needs. Other weights are added for special education students, bilingual students, gifted students, and economically disadvantaged students. Finally, the district gets added weight for its level of isolation (based on the district’s size and population density). Altogether, that puts the 2016 weighted membership in Eagletown at 501.93.
After this weighting based on the needs and characteristics of the student population, the second major factor for determining state aid is the local revenue provided by the district. Based on student weights, Eagletown is due foundation state aid of $799,072. However, the district’s local revenue from property taxes and its projected state dedicated revenues from school land earnings, gross production taxes, motor vehicle taxes, and rural electric association taxes are subtracted from that top amount. For Eagletown, the $271,527 received from local taxes and dedicated state revenue brings their foundation aid down to $527,545.
Besides this foundation aid, Eagletown receives $25,370 in transportation aid, which is based on the district’s population density and the number of students who live at least one and a half miles away from their school. Finally, they receive $600,393 in salary incentive aid. Like foundation aid, the salary incentive aid is reduced in districts with higher local property tax revenues. Together these three parts bring the total of $1,153,308 in state aid to Eagletown.
A school district with almost no state aid
At the other end of the state funding formula is Billings Public Schools, with just $1,291 in state aid funding for 83 students — $15.55 per student. The Billings District is located in Noble county in north central Oklahoma.
With a weighted student membership of 174.82, Billings would be eligible for $278,313 in foundation aid. However, Billings brings in more than twice as much property tax revenue as Eagletown. The district’s foundation state aid is entirely wiped out by Billing’s local revenue and dedicated state revenues of $418,673. Salary incentive aid is also wiped out by property tax revenue in Billings. The only state aid not affected by local revenues is transportation aid, and that’s the only state aid that Billings gets. Billings is one of 35 school districts statewide where this is true.
Across the state, counties with higher assessed property values and higher property tax revenues are where school districts tend to receive the least state aid funding. That also means that when local assessors don’t accurately appraise properties in their county, it affects school funding statewide.
This dollar for dollar trade in local revenue for state aid can be a mixed blessing for Oklahoma schools. On the one hand, it helps distribute school funding more fairly across districts in rich and poor areas — unlike states like Texas and Illinois where schools with many low-income students often receive much less per pupil funding than schools in wealthier areas. On the other hand, that means local areas cannot decide to invest more in schools without losing an equal amount in state funding — and when state aid funding falls dramatically, almost no district can escape deep cuts.