Oklahoma remains nation’s top state for education cuts (The Oklahoman)

By Ben Felder 

Oklahoma’s cuts to general education funding since 2008 continue to lead the nation, according to the latest report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Nearly 27 percent of state per pupil funding, adjusted for inflation, has been cut since 2008. That figure not only leads the nation but is nearly double the percentage of cuts made by Alabama, the second worst state for educating funding reductions.

“Oklahoma cannot allow our public education system to continue languishing without adequate funding,” state superintendent Joy Hofmeister said in a statement to The Oklahoman. “While it is true that state-appropriated dollars have increased, funding has failed to keep pace with an influx of more than 50,000 additional students. Along with these spikes in student growth, state-mandated coverage of health insurance costs for teachers has continued to escalate.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based nonpartisan research and policy institute, highlighted in its report the fact that five of the eight states with the largest cuts to education have also implemented personal income tax cuts, which includes Oklahoma.

“This isn’t a surprise,” said Gene Perry with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “But it should be noted that this is the third year in a row we have been leading the nation in education cuts and we have seen no significant action by the legislature or governor to do anything about it.”

Income tax cuts

Earlier this year the Oklahoma Policy Institute published a report showing Oklahoma’s income tax cuts have reached more than $1 billion per year since 2004 and have resulted in a loss of $356 million annually to public schools.

Some legislative leaders have argued overall education spending had been on the rise in Oklahoma before last year’s revenue failure and that per pupil funding is an inaccurate way of viewing the state’s commitment to public schools.

“The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities suggests Oklahoma has cut funding for education, despite the fact that legislative leaders have worked hard to preserve funding levels for schools in the midst of a historic economic downturn driven by the energy sector,” Oklahoma House Speaker Jeff Hickman told The Oklahoman. “Further, total funding for Oklahoma schools from all sources reached $8.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2016, the highest figure in state history.”

Hickman questioned the validity of the report and said it did not take into account federal education funding and other sources, such as the state’s ad valorem reimbursement funds, motor vehicle taxes, gross production tax funds and record revenues from state land commission funds for schools.

While Hickman points to the total amount distributed to schools, Perry said per pupil funding is the most honest way to view school finance.

Per pupil funding

“Per pupil levels are what translate to what matters the most to parents and students,” Perry said. “The per pupil funding amount is how we fund our teachers and resources in the classroom. It’s the meaningful number because it matches what kids and parents are seeing.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report used 2008 as a baseline for cuts because most states experienced revenue declines that year as a result of The Great Recession when unemployment rates doubled and housing values dropped over the next few years.

“States disproportionately relied on spending cuts to close their large budget shortfalls after the recession hit, rather than a more balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases,” the report stated. “Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, states closed 45 percent of their budget gaps through spending cuts and only 16 percent through taxes and fees — they closed the rest with federal aid, reserves, and various other measures.”

Positions removed

A combination of midyear cuts and funding levels not keeping pace with student growth resulted in 1,530 teaching positions removed in Oklahoma over the past year, according to a report from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association released in August. Another 1,351 support staff positions have also been eliminated over the past year.

Education funding has been a central theme in elections across the state, including for many public school teachers who are running in state House and Senate seats. Oklahomans will also be asked next month to approve a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to fund teacher pay raises, public schools and colleges.

Hofmeister said school leaders have done their best to respond to tough budget times, but she worries about the long-term effect of recent cuts.

“Educators have worked diligently amid these budgetary challenges, but there are limits to what they can do without sufficient funding,” Hofmeister said. “Investment in our public education system reaps dividends that will be felt for generations to come.”


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.