Budget & Tax , Education
Jonathan Small & Curtis Shelton | May 2, 2023
More than $1 billion spent outside funding formula
Jonathan Small & Curtis Shelton
Between the approximately $700 million annually going to the Oklahoma State Department of Education outside the formula and the $420 million going to the teachers’ retirement system, already more than $1 billion in state taxpayer funding for K-12 public schools does not go through the funding formula.
Sometimes when public-education funding is discussed it’s through the lens of Oklahoma’s funding formula. But it’s interesting to note that in 2022 the Oklahoma State Department of Education received total state, local, and federal funds of $8.6 billion—with state funds and state legislative appropriations comprising $3.1 billion of that total—and only $2.4 billion went through the funding formula. That’s only 28 percent of the total $8.6 billion.
The other 72 percent comes from local sources, federal sources, state appropriations, and/or dedicated state revenue that is outside the formula. This dedicated revenue is often referred to as “off the top” revenue. Examples include gross-production-tax collections, motor-vehicle-tax collections, and money sent directly to schools for the purchase of textbooks. Below are examples of appropriated and/or dedicated spending items that total approximately $700 million, and none go through the formula:
Certified Employee Health Benefit Allowance: $359 million
Support Personnel Health Benefit Allowance: $194 million
Teachers’ Retirement Credit: $35 million
Textbooks and Instructional Materials: $45 million
Alternative and High Challenge Education: $14 million
Reading Sufficiency Act: $13 million
Early Intervention: $16 million
Early Childhood Initiative: $12 million
Moreover, none of this $8.6 billion includes the “off the top” money put in the teachers’ retirement system. State taxpayers contributed $420 million to the teachers’ retirement system in FY-2022. (Actually, it's more than that, because this number does not include any local and federal funds that are being used by some school districts to pay their employer-contribution portion to the teachers' retirement system.) In all these cases, taxpayers foot the bill—and none of that money goes through the formula.
In short, between the approximately $700 million annually going to the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the $420 million going to the teachers’ retirement system, already more than $1 billion in state taxpayer funding for K-12 public schools does not go through the funding formula.
The funding formula itself is complicated and would take a lengthy article to explain in its entirety. However, a simple explanation is this: The funding formula takes the total amount of money appropriated into the formula and divvies it out to school districts based on two main variables, student count and local funding.
A district’s student count is not as simple as a straight headcount. There are various factors that can lead to a single student being counted more than once. These factors include student weights for gifted and disabled students as well as different weights for different age ranges. These weights can vary considerably, but what it boils down to is that almost no student is counted as one student when it comes to funding. For example, a seventh-grader with a learning disability is counted as 1.6 students. This is because seventh-graders have a weight of 1.2 and students with a learning disability have an additional weight of 0.4.
Weighted Student Funding Doesn’t Always Help That Student
Some argue it is wise to try to match funding for these individual characteristics assigned to each student by government officials. But the math never works out quite that cleanly.
This is easy to see with students who have a speech impairment, for example. They have an additional weight of .05. There are many small school districts around the state which may only have a few students with a speech impairment. Three such students would only add to a district’s student count by 0.15 students. In 2022 that would have amounted to an extra $500 for the entire year. That’s nowhere near enough to pay for a full-time speech pathologist, nor would it be enough to contract the work out for an entire year. That means either the school can’t provide those services or must use money from somewhere else to pay for those costs. That example applies to all the different student categories.
It’s noteworthy that numerous private schools across the country, including many in Oklahoma, charge tuition at the same level per student regardless of a student’s assigned characteristics. Across the country, private schools and school choice programs often reveal that the government’s assigned characteristics are often just an excuse for the poor performance of adults, and that all children can learn despite whatever characteristics have been assigned to them. The stories are too numerous to count of students with “special needs” as assigned by the public school system who manage to thrive in a charter or private school, and at less funding per pupil.
How the formula deals with local funding is another area where not every student is counted the same. After the formula calculates how much a district would receive based on its student count, it then subtracts how much local funding the district has received. That means districts with high property-tax valuations receive less state funding than poorer property-tax districts. It’s possible for a district to receive no state aid despite the fact school attendance is required under state law.
The July 2022 calculations showed that 47 non-charter school districts received no state aid outside of transportation funding. The largest of these districts was Pryor in Mayes County while the smallest was Straight in Texas County.
And here is an inconvenient truth about the formula: There is no requirement in state law that schools use all the extra funding provided by the associated student weight on specific classroom expenses to assist with those specific needs. While the formula is often talked about as a way to create an equitable funding structure, that equity is only surface-level.
Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.
Policy Research Fellow
Curtis Shelton currently serves as a policy research fellow for OCPA with a focus on fiscal policy. Curtis graduated Oklahoma State University in 2016 with a Bachelors of Arts in Finance. Previously, he served as a summer intern at OCPA and spent time as a staff accountant for Sutherland Global Services.