That’s a Whopper: Total revenue is a false measure of school funding

WhopperIn making the case against additional funding for public schools, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) has recently asserted that “Oklahoma’s per-pupil revenues — – a whopping $12,206 in fiscal year 2013 — – are at record levels.”  The $12,206 figure has been cited in numerous editorials and articles, and was a common talking point among some legislators at last week’s education rally.

In looking at the actual numbers used by OCPA, one sees that they generated their “whopping” $12,206 per-pupil average by considering the lump-sum total of all school revenues, include revenues that have little or no bearing on school operating budgets. Most importantly, the lump-sum total includes all money in school bond funds,  sinking funds, building funds, and municipal levy funds, as well as dedicated taxes, such as the MAPS fund. It also includes money for school lunch programs paid for by students out-of-pocket and through the federal Free- and Reduced-Lunch Program, and all revenues generated locally by fundraising and ticket sales for school activities, such as athletics and band trips.

Under state law, schools are prohibited from using the great bulk of non-General Fund revenues for operating expenses. Sinking funds can be used only for debt service and court ordered judgments against the school district. Bond funds are restricted to bricks and mortar, plus other specific items identified in law such as textbooks, computers, and software. Building funds can be used for a broader range of school expenses, such as utilities, property insurance, and some salary costs, but not to pay teacher salaries.

The figure below shows the allocation of total revenues on a percentage basis for FY 2013:

Source: State Department of Education
Source: State Department of Education

Of total revenues, about two-thirds, or 64.3 percent, goes to the General Fund for school operations. The remaining 35.6 percent is divided between capital outlays and dedicated funds for meals and schools activities. Including these other revenues in a debate about school funding makes about as much sense as throwing in the value of your retirement plan, annuities and home in trying to figure out how much income you have to pay your monthly bills.

General Fund revenues equated to $7,848 per pupil in FY 2013, which is similar to the most reputable sources of state per-pupil expenditures.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oklahoma’s per pupil expenditures were $7,587 in FY 2011, which was 49th in the nation among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, ahead of only Utah and Idaho. The Census Bureau shows Oklahoma’s per pupil expenditures declining by 3.9 percent in 2011, the fourth steepest drop in the nation. More recent data published by the National Education Association, which uses a slightly different methodology than the Census Bureau, reports Oklahoma per pupil expenditures as $8,285 in 2012.

There is certainly room for a healthy discussion about the data used in debates about school funding. In particular, the focus on money appropriated through the state aid formula can obscure other important revenue sources that go into school budgets. However, there is no case to be made for throwing in everything plus the kitchen sink just to manufacture a whopper of a conclusion. 


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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