Two big myths that distort Oklahoma’s education funding debate

For years now, how we fund our schools has been the number one controversy in Oklahoma politics. Education funding has been the subject of numerous bills and proposals, state, national, and international media coverage, and the largest Capitol rally in state history. The symptoms of a crisis in education are all around us: dozens of districts going to 4-day school weeks; a skyrocketing number of teacher jobs being filled by emergency-certified teachers, because there was no applicant with a required teaching license; and hundreds of Oklahoma’s best teachers moving out of the state or quitting the profession so they can earn a living wage.

Despite this evidence, some lawmakers continue to resist admitting that Oklahoma needs to increase revenues for education — especially if it means raising taxes. Lawmakers and anti-tax interest groups have felt the pressure from the large numbers of Oklahomans upset about what’s happening in public schools, so they put a lot of energy into coming up with excuses for why more revenues are not the answer. They have manipulated data and cherry-picked numbers to claim that lack of funding isn’t the problem. Here are two big myths that have distorted Oklahoma’s education funding debate:

Myth #1: Education funding hasn’t been cut

Despite numerous reports that Oklahoma’s per pupil education funding is way down, some continue to spread the myth that education revenue is at an all time high. This myth was recently repeated by Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Broken Arrow), who called reports of declining school funding “fake news”, and by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which published charts purporting to show that public school revenues are higher than ever.

These claims rest on a few serious mistakes. The statistics they cite combine a large number of revenue sources and funds with many different purposes — including families paying for school activities, athletics, and lunches; local booster clubs and other district fundraising; tuition and fees for extracurricular programs; municipal and county taxes and bond issues; state funding for general operations and employee health benefits; dedicated funds for a variety of services like alternative and at-risk education, mentor teacher stipends, and arts and vocational programs; and federal funds dedicated to disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, free and reduced-price lunch subsidies, and more.

It’s understandable that this funding picture is complicated, because we ask public schools to do many jobs. Oklahoma’s common education system operates thousands of schools across the state, employs tens of thousands of workers, and is responsible for educating hundreds of thousands of children with many different needs. For that reason, a single top-line budget number hides more than it reveals.

However, a good-faith analysis of school revenues can show more clearly what is happening. First, we can break out total school revenues into local, state, and federal sources and adjust for inflation. This reveals some clear trends:

 

Federal dollars coming into Oklahoma schools have been relatively flat over the past decade, with the exception of a bump from 2009 to 2011 due to the federal stimulus bill. Local dollars have steadily increased by 2 percent per year on average. This is normal and expected, because the bulk of local school funding comes through property taxes, which have a reliable rate of growth in most economic conditions. Although every school district in Oklahoma is at the limit for the property tax rate they can charge to cover general operations, increases in property values over time ensure that this funding source keeps pace with inflation, the size of the economy, and enrollment growth. This kind of growth is normal and necessary if schools are to keep up with the jobs they are tasked with.

But when we get to state funding, the picture is very different. From 2006 to 2009, state dollars were showing the same reliable increase as local dollars. In 2010, state funding plummeted, and it has never returned to the pre-recession rate of growth, much less caught up with years of missed growth. If that trend had not been disrupted, public schools would have nearly $1 billion more in state revenues today.

Back in 2011, then-Superintendent Janet Barresi described the sudden drop in education revenues as “the new normal.” Unfortunately, it appears that she was right.

The increase over time in local revenues has not made up for the loss of state revenues. From 2009 to 2016, local revenues grew by $296.8 million after inflation; over those same years, state revenues dropped by $480.2 million. Combining all revenue sources and dividing by the number of students enrolled shows a significant decline. Per-pupil revenue from all local, state, and federal sources combined is down 7.3 percent compared to 2006; it’s down 12.0 percent compared to the pre-recession peak in 2009.

Back in 2011, then-Superintendent Janet Barresi described the sudden drop in education revenues as ‘the new normal.’ Unfortunately, it appears that she was right.

All of this analysis is based on the same data source cited by OCPA and Rep. Rogers in their claims that funding has not been cut. However, the aggregated number that they use serves to hide the deep cuts in state funding. They also do not account for inflation, and OCPA double-counts billions in revenues by adding in “carryover funds” as if it is new money. These are dollars that schools spend in a different fiscal year than they receive them because their obligations don’t always line up with the state’s budget calendar. But spending it in a different year does not mean they get to spend the same dollar twice.

In this context, it should not be a mystery as to why schools face such difficulty keeping teachers in the classroom and covering other basic expenses. Despite this reality, another big myth has been commonly repeated as an excuse to not restore education funding.

Myth #2: Administrative costs are keeping dollars out of the classroom

Perhaps the most common complaint made by those fighting revenue increases for education is that Oklahoma’s relatively high number of school districts and the resulting administration costs are what’s really keeping dollars out of the classroom. We can look at the data to assess this claim. Based on U.S. Census data, here’s how Oklahoma’s school spending broke down in fiscal year 2015 (the most recent year that this data is available for every state):

School district administration accounted for $237 per student, about 3 percent of total school spending. This puts us right in the middle of the U.S. (25th highest out of all 50 states). Meanwhile our rank for spending on instruction is near the lowest (47th), so there may be some savings to be found by consolidating districts. However, these savings would be nowhere near enough to boost spending on instruction significantly. In FY 2015, Oklahoma spent $4,466 per student on instruction. If the state somehow moved EVERY dollar that we spend on district administration into instruction, our ranking would… still be 47th! We wouldn’t improve by a single state.

Consolidation may still be a good idea for some districts as parts of the state lose population and others gain. However, it will never be a replacement for increasing total revenues to support common education. If lawmakers hope to succeed at improving education in Oklahoma, they need to set aside these myths and get serious about reversing the funding cuts to our schools.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gene Perry joined OK Policy in January 2011. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism. Gene also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, is a trustee of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has chaired the communications advisory committee for the State Priorities Partnership, a nationwide network of state fiscal policy think tanks. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Kara Joy McKee, who is a Tulsa City Councilor.

9 thoughts on “Two big myths that distort Oklahoma’s education funding debate

  1. Public schools and those that work in them definitely put kids first and do more than educate, they don’t pass the buck or say not our department/job. We have the best people going above and beyond for oklahoma kids, filling the gap left by broken homes, less than desirable circumstances socially, economically and environmentally. No one tells our legislators to do more with less, they were paid for their special session to do a job that already had been paid for. It is not rocket science, clean up the laws and regulations, run the government half as effectively and efficiently as a public school and I’m sure there would be surplus. Privatization of schools is not the answer either, they get to choose who they serve! School officials don’t get paid for their time that is outside the classroom or school day, it is just expected. Not to mention,the majority have a 2nd or 3rd job to make ends meet, and still struggle.

  2. It is unbelievable to read about and listen to reasons why Oklahoma lawmakers don’t see a need to adequately fund education. I’m sure they have been shamed by our national ratings in teacher pay, but maybe not. Some people can take a lot of shame as long as their own needs are being met. Where do the children of the legislators go to school -public, private or at home? Do these legislators know that cutting fine arts from the curriculum only educates part of a child’s brain? Is it not important for class sizes to remain in the sane zone? Schools are those places that develop our children’s lives, and some things should be very important to all residents of our state whether or not you have children of your own. Our legislators are aware that very profitable companies would love to move to Oklahoma but won’t! Why? One reason is that we clearly don’t think there is a problem or we don’t value education when we tax gas and oil at a ridiculously low percentage and refuse to pay for our schools. It seems like the our legislators tremble at the thought of loosing that little bit of money. What will we possibly do??? Who will fund my next re-election? Oklahoma is noted for so much that is positive. But Oklahoma is looked down upon as a place where poor health and education is is just fine as long as we can glaze over it’s greatest faults! We have legislators who will vote for parts of the budget if it is paid for on the backs of the poor, but nothing that touches the wealthy donors who will spent real money to get the re-election they want. If our schools are just fine, why did schools have to change the 5-day school week to 4 days? Why do wonderfully educated teachers leave the state in order to make a decent income? Why do we allow our lawmakers to repeat the “last couple of weeks scramble” to scrub up enough money to get by one year at a time? The most important question is, “why in the world do we keep these do nothings in the legislative positions they clearly aren’t willing or able to do?

  3. I think a big problem is we have people making decisions for us who have never been in a classroom, or even phased the school doors to see how their local schools in Oklahoma operate. I have been all over Oklahoma, and I noticed Myth 2 kind of gives us a hint of probably what needs to be done, however, this may put many people out of a job by downsizing, restructuring, and consolidating school districts. I know personally of certain schools that are anywhere from four to eight miles apart. Why can we not consolidate these types of schools that are so close? With the local town politics involved, consolidating schools gets under the skin of those great grandparents, grandparents, and parents who are adamant about not making this happen because of customs and traditions. With small town rivals, I have heard many say, “we will never allow these two schools to consolidate.” In addition, I have many educator friends who are leaving Oklahoma going to the east and south of us getting jobs paying $10K to $15K more a year. We also have had people in top education positions that should have never been placed there. Now, we are trying to clean up what others have left behind. We are constantly trying to change curriculum and evaluation systems that I believe still don’t work, and look at the money we spent changing just these two big items. We have had one reform after another since the “Nation at Risk” was published trying to keep up with other advancing countries in education. When are we going to go back and allowing the states to run how education should work in Oklahoma? We need some retired die hard educators running the show, and let’s get back to the basics of student achievement. I also like what Mrs. Elliot indicated in her post. Changing five day to four day school days from what I have seen and heard is not really a savings for the school. We’ve actually cut into our children’s instructional time by trying to save a dime or two. The infrastructure of many schools are also top heavy. I was amazed to see not only the state department top heavy, but many larger school districts top heavy as well. Being a prior military man, I have been through so many downsizing and consolidating where the top was cut in order for the middle class workers to be able to move up and be given pay raises for good performance. It’s almost good bye for most baby boomers, and what will the next generation of educators have to face? I did recently work for a superintendent that is all about the teachers and students! That’s the type of people we need!!

  4. This scenario is deja vu in that I experience the same pattern for the last five years as a superintendent in Kansas. This radical Right, anti-public education agenda, is being driven in both states by the Koch brothers and they own several of our influential politicians. Next they will attack the state funding formula and call for “efficiencies,” like we have no idea how to conserve precious resources in education…

    The ONLY way to stop this train wreck is to stop voting for these people! We (educators) MUST vote for legislators that support our profession; not with lip service, but with actions.

  5. This is the second time I have made this suggestion on this site, with no response. We have over 150 casinos in Oklahoma. If we could get just one casino to pledge a certain percentage of profits to Oklahoma Education and challenge the others to do the same, would this not help relieve our education funding crisis. We allowed gambling into Oklahoma with the promise that education would be better funded. If this is not a plausible solution or benefit to education, please tell me why it is not. I don’t even know where to start in approaching casinos, but somebody does. Oklahoma needs a hero and the first casino to pledge will receive tons of advertising, publicity and appreciation from everyone!

  6. Joyce, Oklahoma has already made agreements with tribes to dedicate a portion of gaming revenues to education. Tribal gaming contributed $132 million to the state last year, with 88% of that dedicated to education and 12% going to the state’s general fund. See here: https://ok.gov/OSF/documents/GameCompAnnReport2016.pdf

    Both tribal gaming and lottery funds have helped to boost education funding. However, other revenues have been cut by even more due to growing tax cuts and tax breaks, so overall the funding is not keeping up with the needs.

  7. Doing better for our teachers will require significant change at a state level but we meanwhile are missing so many local opportunities.

    I recently attended a school board meeting in a small town in northeast Oklahoma. Without much discussion, the local board voted to purchase two new and relatively expensive activity vehicles (upscale bus with school mascot painted on the bus). I was the only person at the meeting other than the board members, two school administrators and two reps from school food service companies who were in the room to hear the results of a food service contract decision. No one showed up to witness this well intended but profoundly inconsiderate and ill timed decision.

    The school board chairman’s comment was that he couldn’t wait to see the football team roll into a local rivals town on a Friday night in the new buses. He even said that he had been waiting “20 years for this to happen!”. One board member asked what the teachers might think. One,and without much genuine enthusiasm. The Superintendent responded to the almost obligatory “what about the teachers?” by saying that he would take care of any teacher concerns. The tone was as if Papa Bear Superintendent knew best and would take care of the silly teacher expectations.

    It doesn’t matter if using the funds for a teacher bonus for the small number of teachers in this school district would have been $20 per teacher or $2000 for each teacher, the dollars were not restricted, were from the general fund and should have gone to teachers. Smart districts are finding ways to give retention bonuses and keep the precious teaching talent.

    I couldn’t help but wonder where the teachers were when this vote was taken. Where were the citizens who actually care about public education? Who is actually speaking up to change local decisions that have real impact on local teacher pay? While we wait for the crazies to leave office, there is much we can do at a local level. Start by showing up at local school board meetings. Be present. Be a witness to the decisions made at a local level that devalue the teaching profession.

    Oklahoma Policy Institute, dig deeper into how the funds that are available are being spent at a local level.

  8. I am all for giving the teacher and support personnel a raise in salary and directing more funds to the classroom. But at the same time I feel some reforms are in order. Of the 521 districts in Oklahoma,Approx. 47 have less than 150 students and approx. 27 are below 240 students. How can these schools provide the quality of education their students need for this day and age? I don’t think they can! Every body wants to be like Texas! So, Texas has 1029 school districts with an average of 8 schools per district. Let’s be like Texas ! We would have 65 school districts with about 8 schools per district. Put the administrative cost savings into the classroom with teacher and support salaries, books, and supplies. This does not close any local schools but allow investments in distant learning media to provide all the students exposure to the needed instruction. Would some schools be closed? maybe but it would be up to the local taxpayers to vote tax issues to keep the school maintained and operational.

  9. Kermit,
    You clearly didn’t read the article or just skimmed through it. The writer addressed this myth of district consolidation and showed that it would have little impact on per pupil spending. Those salaries are a small percentage of overall spending. At least look at the chart.

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