Price tag for ‘fully funded’ schools: another $2.1 billion?

Budget & Tax , Education

Ray Carter | April 1, 2021

Price tag for ‘fully funded’ schools: another $2.1 billion?

Ray Carter

Democrats, teacher union officials and allied groups have staunchly opposed even minor education reforms this year, arguing that instead of addressing structural flaws or increasing parent options that lawmakers should instead “fully fund” traditional public schools.

Some lawmakers have noted in response that those critics seldom provide a price tag or precise definition for what they mean by “fully funded.”

Now Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, has produced a thumbnail proposal with a specific cost estimate—and it’s gigantic.

In a March 31 tweet that Hicks said was offered to her “peer who demands an answer on what the ‘magic number’ is to fully fund schools,” Hicks argued that state spending should increase by $3,000 per student in a system with roughly 700,000 students, which she noted translates into an increased cost of $2.1 billion per year.

For the current budget year, lawmakers appropriated $2.9 billion for K-12 schools. Hicks’s proposal would raise state appropriations for K-12 public schools from $2.9 billion to more than $5 billion.

Since last year’s general appropriation budget totaled $7.7 billion, Hicks's proposal would require defunding large swaths of state government, massive tax increases, or a combination of both.

The increased funding Hicks endorsed is almost as much as this year’s state appropriation for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (Medicaid), the Department of Human Services, and the state prison system combined.

If lawmakers tried to increase school funding to the levels endorsed by Hicks without cutting other state agency budgets, the tax increases required would be significant because Hicks’s proposed spending increase almost equals the entire amount some major tax sources currently generate for the state’s General Revenue Fund, which is the major source of legislative appropriations.

In the 2020 state budget year, which concluded on June 30, 2020, state government collected $2.5 billion from individual income taxes that went to the state’s General Revenue Fund.

Oklahoma’s top income tax rate is 5 percent and kicks in at $8,700 of taxable income for single filers and $15,000 for couples.

If lawmakers opted to increase the sales tax instead, the increase necessary to boost school spending by another $2.1 billion would also be significant. A state report shows Oklahoma’s 4.5 percent sales tax produced just over $2 billion for the General Revenue Fund in the 2020 state budget year.

Hicks’ proposal comes shortly after Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist attacked lawmakers for not providing more money to schools despite recent tax-and-spending increases, calling those moves only “one step in the right direction.”

During the 2018 legislative session, the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature approved some of the largest tax increases in Oklahoma history. State appropriations for education are now $545 million more than at that time.

Hicks’s comments also represent a dramatic escalation in spending demands from public-school activists. In 2019, Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso, also used regional comparisons to argue Oklahoma schools were underfunded and that a dramatic increase in state spending should occur. But the figure cited by Dossett at that time, while representing a huge increase, was still far below Hick’s proposal.

“The bottom line is, according to the numbers I have more recently, we’re still roughly $777 million behind putting enough into the formula where we can be regionally competitive,” Dossett said.

Even as Hicks is endorsing massive increases in school spending, she recently appeared to suggest that increased funding would have little impact on academic outcomes.

When the Oklahoma Senate took up a measure that would reduce the number of “ghost student” counts used by schools to receive greater state funding than what would be provided based on actual enrollment, the bill’s author noted that reducing the number nonexistent students in the formula would increase overall per-pupil levels provided to all school districts, including those that do not currently benefit from the “ghost student” system.

Hicks asked the bill’s author—Sen. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole—if his bill would improve educational outcomes. Taylor said he believed the “increase in per-pupil money that could take place is a positive for those outcomes.”

Hicks responded, “Do you have evidence to support those claims?”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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