By Lynn Habluetzel with Jenni White
Along with budget cuts, the appropriated budget hole for Fiscal Year 2017 is now expected to be $1.3 billion, squarely placing the BUDGET front and center with agencies coming to the realization their budgets will actually be cut this year. I can imagine this comes as a shock when every year they have asked for increases and every year they have received it, creating a certain amount of disbelief cuts will actually happen.
Each agency presented their budget to the legislature at the A & B Education meeting last week, with State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister asking for an increase of almost 48 million to the 2017 Common Education budget to just over $6 BILLION dollars. I don't believe this is possible with the state's $1.3 billion revenue hole. (All figures supplied in this article can be found inside the link above. Thank you to Mrs. Hofmeister and her staff for making the budget so easy to read and available to the public.)
We are frequently told Oklahoma doesn't properly fund education and that per pupil funding has dropped, yet the legislature has increased Common Education funding each year. How can both be true? Actually,
every year the legislature has given Common Education increases, but two factors have sucked these increases out of the classroom: Health benefits which have risen sharply since 2010 and climbed steadily since, and increased public school enrollment.
This year the increase in health benefits for Common Ed is over $30 million because Oklahoma pays for the full health benefits for their teachers (slide 9). Few other states do this, yet paying for these kinds of health benefits lowers the per pupil amount available in the budget.
Because enrollment has increased by 40,000 kids within the last 6 years (683,799 in 2014/15; 688,275 in 2015/16) any budgetary increases must be divided among more students. Additionally, many of the influx of students into Tulsa and Oklahoma City public schools are of Hispanic origin (both OKCPS and TPS are over 50% in Hispanic enrollment), requiring services such as ELL which add to district costs.
But these factors aren't the only ones reducing classroom funding.
Because of state and federal mandates since 2010 (like TLE for instance) which cost the state over $125 MILLION (slide 11), schools have had to employ lots of non-teachers for collection and reporting of data. Repealing these kinds of mandates could put money back into the classroom.
Testing is another example. Oklahoma has more mandated tests than those federally mandated test. The state could repeal those "extra" tests and save money. This would mean no more mandated social studies tests, 7th grade geography, US History and writing, along with all the non-federally mandated EOIs would save $6 million dollars. Repealing TLE and rolling back testing mandates would not only put more money in the classroom budget, but give teachers both more classroom instruction time.
Don't let anyone tell you the teacher shortage is a direct result of teacher pay, because it cannot possibly be so. There is a teacher shortage in every state in the USA. Is every state in the union paying their teachers such a low wage they're leaving in droves? In fact, several Oklahoma teacher focus groups have all concluded that the biggest problem contributing to teacher attrition is classroom autonomy, and this is not just Oklahoma - this is a nationally known, well-researched fact (Teachers who perceive that they have less autonomy are more likely to leave their positions, either by moving from one school to another or leaving the profession altogether). We may not be able to provide teachers more money to their classroom this year, but the state CAN give teachers more time to teach and more control over their classrooms by pulling back just these state mandates.
Look at the budget, think about the information we've provided, then contact your legislator and let them know your thoughts on the Oklahoma state education budget TODAY.
*Here are some interesting public education facts collected at the national level in case you're interested.