Senate Review by Senator J.J. Dossett (Skiatook Journal)

By Senator J.J. Dossett

In 2014 thousands of Oklahoma teachers, parents, students and education advocates rallied at the state Capitol. I was one of those teachers who traveled to Oklahoma City, asking the governor and legislative leaders to make education the priority they claimed it was. We asked them to restore the funding cuts of the previous five years, during which time our per-pupil investment in common education fell more than 20 percent.

Certainly other states had been forced to reduce education funding as a result of the national recession, but Oklahoma’s reductions made us first in the nation—no other state had cut education funding as much. With Oklahoma’s economy on the rebound, we felt it was time to ask lawmakers to make education whole again by returning our schools to pre-recession funding levels.

An additional $80 million was appropriated that year, but half of that was for increases in insurance, and the other half was dispersed through the formula. This was not enough to restore the funding levels to pre-recession levels, and not enough to give teachers a much-needed pay raise. But that same year, legislation was passed and signed into law to reduce the state’s income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent.

That tax cut kicked in this year, despite the fact that Oklahoma is facing a $1.3 billion shortfall for the 2017 fiscal year. That’s on top of the FY 2016 revenue shortfall that has forced the state to slash agency budgets across the board by nearly half a billion dollars. The cut to education alone was close to $110 million.

Last week, the governor and the leaders of the Senate and House announced an agreement to give education $51 million from the Rainy Day Fund. That’s $5 million less than Superintendent Hofmeister had requested. I’m glad that our schools will get some relief, but it should have been more. Even with the Rainy Day Funds, they’re still facing significant reductions in the current school year.

Despite the agreement using the Rainy Day Fund to soften the impact of this year’s revenue failure on education, Oklahoma’s already underfunded schools will still have to make some very difficult choices in order to balance their budgets. One school district here in northeastern Oklahoma has already announced they’ll shorten the school year by six days this year because of budget cuts. I’m sure we’ll be hearing about other school districts being forced to look at options like this.

Even before these cuts, Oklahoma was facing a teacher shortage that many have called a crisis—a shortage tied to Oklahoma’s low teacher salaries. The Oklahoma Policy Institute cites a recent study by University of Tulsa economist Matthew Hendricks that says as teacher salaries have stagnated, more teachers are leaving the public school system in Oklahoma. The study found that between 2006 and 2014, about 35 percent of first-year teachers left their school and 17 percent left the public school system completely. With no ability to raise salaries any time soon, and some districts likely being forced to reduce positions as a result of the budget, this situation will only worsen.

There was a bill this year to delay the income tax reduction, and that would have helped close the budget gap. That measure passed the Senate Finance Committee with bipartisan support, but it was never brought to the floor for consideration by the full Senate.

I welcome your comments on state government and the issues before us. Please feel free to contact me by writing to Senator J.J. Dossett at the State Capitol, Room 521-A, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105; call me at (405) 521-5566.

Leave a Reply

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