For several years now, Oklahoma has led the nation in cuts to state aid funding of K-12 schools by reducing state aid per student 26.9 percent since 2008. That’s almost twice as much as the next worst state, Alabama. The results are clear. Many of our state’s best teachers are leaving for other states, nearly one in five of the state’s school districts are going to 4-day weeks, class sizes are growing, arts, athletics, and STEM programs are being cut, and more.
These problems have gotten attention in state and national media — so much that Governor Fallin says she is having trouble convincing businesses to come to Oklahoma because of them. Less attention has gone to higher education, because even though higher education funding also saw deep cuts, those cuts weren’t leading the nation.
That has changed, according to a new report from researchers at Illinois State University. Over the past five years, Oklahoma has cut state funding for higher education by 17.8 percent, the most in the nation. As with K-12 funding, our cuts have been much deeper than the next worst state (Louisiana with 11.5 percent cuts). We are one of only seven states that didn’t increase funding over this period and one of only three states that cut funding by more than 10 percent.
We’ve jumped to the lead in cuts primarily because lawmakers severely cut higher education last year. They reduced funds for higher education by $153 million, a nearly 16 percent drop from the previous year’s funding levels. Many did this expecting that higher education would recover much of those cuts by the passage of State Question 779, which would have sent 19.25 percent of the revenues from a 1 percent sales tax increase to higher education. Of course, SQ 779 did not pass, but this year instead of restoring some of those cuts, lawmakers cut higher education by another 3.95 percent.
Colleges and universities have coped with these cuts by a combination of layoffs and program cutbacks, increased reliance on private donations and grants, and tuition increases. The hardest hit have been Oklahoma’s regional universities, which don’t have the large private endowments and other resources that the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University can use to cushion the blow.
Oklahoma has cut total state education spending in seven out of the past ten years, based on data from the state’s annual financial reports adjusted for inflation. We spent $887 million less on education in 2016 compared to 2009 — a nearly 17 percent drop. That’s almost three times what we would need to give every teacher a $5,000 raise and make their salaries competitive with other states.
These cuts should worry all Oklahomans — not just those who are students or have kids in school. Across the country, the states with the highest productivity and wages are those with the most college graduates. This correlation has grown much stronger in recent decades, as a degree became increasingly important for getting a good job. From 1979 to 2012, the wage gap between families headed by two college graduates and families headed by high school graduates grew by $30,000, after inflation.
Despite the clear evidence that investing in education strengthens the economy, Oklahoma has become the nation’s biggest outlier, taking our state in the wrong direction, and fast.