After three straight years of budget cuts, funding for public education in Oklahoma is in dire straits. This year’s appropriation to the Department of Education is $254 million, or 10.0 percent, less than it was in 2009. In the past three years, funding to school districts through the state aid formula, which funds the basic operating costs of schools, has been slashed by $222 million, while public schools enrollment has grown by 22,000 students. According to the most recent data, the number of teachers was cut by over 1,000 between 2010 and 2011, and this year it is likely there are fewer teachers still. Even though schools have tried to manage cuts while protecting class sizes, simple math dictates that more students and fewer teachers is leading to more kids per class.
Meanwhile, the Legislature has also cut the activities budget for common education, which funds health care costs for teachers and support staff, as well as a portion of retirement costs and programs that aim to improve teacher quality and student performance. This year, the Department of Education was forced to eliminate or drastically cut a slew of programs, including adult education, alternative education, Great Expectations, A+ Schools, and Literacy First. With its activities budget slashed, the department also opted not to allocate $11.4 million to fund the $5,000 annual bonus promised to some 3,300 National Board Certified teachers and saved $37 million by funding only ten months of teacher and support staff health care benefits for current year contracts. Outrage in the education community over this failure to meet the state’s commitments on health care costs and board certified teachers led some elected officials to promise to make up the funding as mid-year supplementals to this year’s budget.
In her 2013 budget request, State Superintendent Janet Barresi has asked for an increase of $158 million to ensure that common education is adequately funded. This increase includes $78.2 million to restore state aid funding levels back to 2011 levels, an amount which would still be $134 million less than 2009, when the state had at least 12,000 fewer students. She has also requested $45.5 million to fully fund health benefits, $11.4 million for National Board teacher bonuses, and additional money to restore programs cut or eliminated last year, including adult education, Parents as Teachers, and Advanced Placement initiatives, and to implement her education reform priorities, including the mathematics intervention initiative and new professional development programs.
The Governor’s 2013 budget, however, allocates not one additional dollar for common education next year. The department’s proposed funding for 2013 is $2,278 million, exactly as in 2012. Although the Governor does recommend a $37.6 million supplemental appropriation to cover the full cost of health care benefits in 2012, this money is not carried over into the base budget to fund twelve months of benefits in 2013. Since the cost of health care benefits is expected to rise, this creates a $45 million budget hole. The Governor’s budget does not include supplemental funding for National Board certified teacher bonuses this year – and with flat funding, there seems little chance the bonuses could paid next year either. There would be no additional funding to restore the state aid formula, adult education, teacher development programs, alternative education, or other programs slashed in recent years.
The result of continued flat funding is likely to be increased class sizes, fewer resources for teacher and student improvement, and no funding for initiatives that can make a real difference in strengthening our public education system. If our common goal is to improve our schools, reward quality teachers, and prepare our students for success in higher education and the workforce, does anyone believe this is how we are going to get there?
However, while there is no additional money to support public schools in her 2013 budget, the Governor’s budget allocates $111 million to partially fund her plan to cut the income tax – a plan that will cost at least $340 million, and perhaps much more, in lost revenue in its first full year. What in the world does this say about our priorities?