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.