For the past five years Oklahoma has led the nation for the largest per-pupil cuts to education funding since the Great Recession, according to an annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). This year’s report, released today, finds that Oklahoma has finally moved out of the bottom spot in per pupil formula funding cuts thanks to last year’s teacher pay raise funded by the Legislature on the eve of the statewide teacher walkout. However, despite these gains, Oklahoma remains well below pre-recession levels in per-pupil funding and still has cut more than any state other than Texas.
Last year, Oklahoma lawmakers increased state aid per student by 19 percent after adjusting for inflation –the largest increase among states that have made the deepest cuts to education funding over the past decade, the report shows. While this is an important step forward, Oklahoma still has a long way to go. State aid funding per pupil remains 15 percent below its 2008 pre-recession level adjusted for inflation.
“Oklahoma has made some important improvements but we must do much more to get our education system back on track. Otherwise, we risk falling even further behind the states that are currently investing in a better-educated population,” warned David Blatt, Oklahoma Policy Institute Executive Director.
The bulk of the increase in education funding went to pay for an average $6,100 teacher pay raise, the first across-the-board pay raise for Oklahoma teachers in a decade. However, schools received virtually no additional funding for school operations to restore lost staff or to reverse program cuts. State aid formula funding is the primary state revenue source for schools and an especially important funding source for schools in high-poverty areas, which disproportionately educate children of color. Today, Oklahoma schools serve 54,000 more students than a decade ago, but have 1,100 fewer fine arts classes, 391 fewer support staff, and larger class sizes. Educators have carried this extra burden, and it is unsurprising that teachers cite deteriorating work conditions as a significant factor in their decision to leave the classroom.
Oklahoma teachers were not alone in fighting back against the impact of budget cuts in their classrooms. Oklahoma was one of five states – along with Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia – where teachers protested for increased education funding last year. In all these states, except Kentucky, the protests led to state aid increases between 3 and 9 percent after inflation, which was considerably less than the 19 percent increase in Oklahoma. However, even with last year’s funding boost, Oklahoma remains 15 percent below where we were in 2008 in per pupil formula funding adjusted for inflation. Only Texas has cut per pupil funding more during this period.
While the recession contributed to Oklahoma’s revenue shortfalls, lawmakers enacted income and corporate tax cuts during the downturn that made it harder to recover and restore education funding. The total cost of Oklahoma’s cuts to the top income tax rate since 2004 has reached $1.022 billion per year according to a study by OK Policy. Based on the current proportion of the budget going to education, these tax cuts have resulted in a loss of $356 million annually from K-12 funding.
The CBPP report calls into question the long-term stability of Oklahoma’s funding gains, and warns that steps forward could be reversed unless the state takes further action. Oklahoma’s tax package to fund the teacher pay raise included cigarette and gasoline tax hikes along with an increase in oil extraction tax rates. While these sources adequately covered the pay increases, both cigarette and gasoline consumption may not reliably keep pace with state revenue needs over time. Given this long-term instability, it is concerning that no proposals in Oklahoma have pointed to raising new sources of revenue.
Increases in state funding can both improve educational outcomes for students and the state’s economy in the long term. Last year, the Legislature took important steps to restore what has been cut, but more state aid funding is needed to fully revive our schools. Finding new revenue sources to invest in Oklahoma schools means creating a future where fewer Oklahomans live in poverty and strengthening our economy for everyone.