Still stuck in a hole: Funding for public education falls flat

The FY 2013 budget negotiated  by legislative leaders and Governor Fallin had some encouraging aspects. Overall appropriations increased by $253 million, or 3.8 percent, and there was additional funding for targeted priorities in human services, health care, transportation and public safety. However, despite a grassroots lobbying campaign by concerned parents and strong statements from school officials about the deepening school funding crisis, education ended up as odd-man-out when it came time to allocate new dollars.

Total appropriations to the Department of Education in FY 2013 will be $2,347.2 million. This is an increase of just $16.7 million, or 0.7 percent, compared to FY 2012 and a decrease of $184 million, or 7.3 percent, compared to peak levels in FY 2009.Common education remains the largest single source of state appropriations, but its share of total appropriations in 2013 will have fallen to 34.1 percent, the lowest level since at least FY 2000 (see chart) and likely the lowest since the Education Reform Act (HB 1017) was implemented in the early 1990’s.

To understand the Legislature’s funding decisions for common education, it is helpful to break up the Department of Education’s budget into major components:

The largest component of state funding is for financial support of public schools, which is allocated to school districts across the state through the state aid formula and pays for salaries, transportation and operating expenses of schools. As this graph shows, state aid funding has declined by $214 million since FY 2008 while public school enrollment has increased by over 24,000 students. The result has been larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, and the loss of school programs and services.

The second major component of the education budget is “programs and activities”, which includes the costs of the flexible benefit allowance for teachers and support staff, the teachers retirement credit, and all the educational programs that are funded outside the state aid formula. Since 2008, the cost of health benefits alone has increased by $57 million, while the total programs and activities budget has increased by just $34 million (see our detailed breakdown of the activities budget for FY 2008 – FY 2013 here). This has resulted in an annual battle between the Legislature and the Department of Education over what does and doesn’t get funded.

Until recently, the Legislature provided clear instructions to the Department of Education on how programs and activities were to be funded through line-item appropriations in an agency budget bill. Faced with large shortfalls in FY 2011 and FY 2012, however, the Legislature cut funding for programs and activities but chose not to give the Department direction on how to allocate the cuts.  Two years ago, the Department initially chose not to fund early childhood programs and teacher retirement credits until instructed to do so by the Governor and legislative leaders. Last year, shortfalls led to funding being wiped out for programs such as adult education, academic achievement awards, middle school math laboratories, Literacy First, Great Expectations, A+ Schools and others aimed at helping students, teachers, and schools perform better. The Department’s initial budget also failed to fund bonuses for National Board Certified teachers and only provided ten months of funding for health care benefits. Outrage over those decisions led the Legislature to approve a $52.4 million supplemental in March to cover the promised bonuses and health benefits.

The Legislature provided just a $3 million overall increase for the programs and activities budget. In the General Appropriations bill (SB 1975), funding was specifically allocated for:

  • Teacher and support staff flexible benefits ($344.2 million, an increase of $3.3 million from FY ’12);
  • Teachers Retirement System credit ($35.3 million, same);
  • Board certified teacher bonuses ($14.9 million, +$97k);
  • Alternative education ($14.9 million same);
  • Early Intervention ($14.4 million, same);
  • School Lunch program ($5.0 million, same;
  • Street School  ($185k, restored funding).

There were two additional line-item appropriations. First, the legislature provided $7.0 million for implementation of two education reforms passed last year: the Reading Sufficiency Act (SB 346) and school report cards (HB 1456). The Department will divide this money between Advanced Placement teacher training and test fee assistance, a new math program (Think Through Math), partial restoration of funding for Great Expectations, and various other initiatives.  The legislature also left $10.9 million to the Department’s discretion. The Department decided to allocate the bulk of this money to ACE remediation ($6.7 million), with the rest divided between Benchmark Testing, Oklahoma Parents as Teachers, Oklahoma Arts Institute, AG in the Classroom and the Rural Infant Stimulus Environment (RISE).  There will be no funding in FY 2013 for Reading Sufficiency ($6.3 million in FY 2012), adult education ($2.3 million in FY 2011), Literacy First ($3.0 million in FY 2011) or School District Professional Development ($2.3 million in FY 2011), and some $5 million less than than the department requested for ACE Remediation, Parents as Teachers, Alternative Education and other programs.

The last hours of session were marked by a particularly heated and largely inscrutable dispute over a final component of the education budget. Traditionally the Legislature appropriates $33 million each year that is distributed to the districts for textbooks or instructional purposes. Initially, SB 1975 allocated this $33 million to the programs and activities budget for unspecified purposes. After school districts protested, the Legislature shifted $30 million back to textbooks in SB 1816. Three million was left as part of the programs and activities budget, while an additional $3 million was then appropriated for textbooks in SB 1535.

As a final note: even when it became clear in the last two days of session that the failure of tax cut proposals meant that some $25 million was newly available for appropriation, the Legislature chose not to redirect this money for schools.

A decade ago, the rallying cry among education supporters was “Fund Education First.” This year at least, the disappointing outcome was that education seemed to be funded last. The result will be a continuing squeeze on school budgets and cuts to even more critical programs.


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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