Budget & Tax, Education
Record school spending decried as insufficient
May 18, 2022
The state budget announced by Oklahoma legislative leaders this week includes record funding for public schools without enactment of any reforms that would empower parents and increase school choice opportunities, and the budget plan provides for record state savings that will protect school budgets from cuts during future economic downturns.
But if Republican leaders expected thanks from status-quo sectors of Oklahoma’s education world, they were quickly disillusioned when the budget went before the Senate. One opponent even suggested the budget plan would justify future teacher strikes.
“I was a teacher from 2006 until the time I entered this body in 2016,” said state Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso. “There’s very little hope for an educator wanting more out of this building as far as investment comes.”
When House and Senate leaders announced they had reached a budget agreement, their press release noted that “public K-12 schools continue to be funded at the highest level in state history, $3.2 billion, on top of billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid for schools and surging local property tax revenues in many school districts.”
During floor discussion of Senate Bill 1040, the “general appropriations” bill for state government, Senate Appropriations Chair Roger Thompson noted that state appropriations are only one component of public-school funding.
Thompson, R-Okemah, noted that total school funding in Oklahoma last year was more than $10.6 billion and per-pupil spending was $10,530 per Oklahoma public-school student.
Notably, per-pupil spending in Oklahoma’s public schools is significantly higher than the average tuition in Oklahoma’s private schools. According to data from Private School Review, the average tuition at a private elementary school in Oklahoma is $6,626 per year and $7,623 at private high schools.
And Thompson noted the figures he cited for education funding “did not include” roughly $2 billion provided to Oklahoma public schools in federal COVID-bailout funding. That money can be used for a very broad range of expenditures, and officials with the Oklahoma State Department of Education reported in January that roughly $1.4 billion of the $2 billion in federal COVID-bailout funds provided to schools remains unspent.
Thompson also noted the Oklahoma Department of Education has $173 million in its revolving fund.
But critics argued the state should have devoted much, if not all, of this year’s surplus to provide even larger spending increases at public schools, even as those schools struggle to spend existing federal COVID funds.
“We’re sending the wrong message to our public-education system by saying, ‘We have $1.4 billion, but we don’t have any more for the thing you’re asking for,” Dossett said.
Dossett’s comments echoed a statement released earlier this week by state Sen. Carri Hicks, an Oklahoma City Democrat who is also a former teacher.
“This budget undermines what we know kids need to thrive,” Hicks said.
She indicated that K-12 spending should be increased by another $1.2 billion.
“In a year where we have $1.4 billion in surplus, it’s time to fill the gap,” Hicks said.
Dossett indicated teachers may walk off the job in protest, as they did in 2018.
“We cannot wait for another teacher strike to take public education seriously again,” Dossett said.
Despite the historic school spending included in this year’s budget, no statements of support had been released by groups such as the Oklahoma Education Association, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, or similar organizations as of publication.
Based on current trends, Thompson said it is likely the state will have $2.7 billion in savings in various accounts at the end of the current state budget year, which concludes on June 30.
Thompson said “stress test” reviews of state finances indicate Oklahoma government needs savings equal to 7 percent to 9 percent of overall state spending, which he said translates to $2.2 billion to $2.3 billion in savings, to avoid major spending cuts or tax increases during a future downturn.
The entities financially protected by that level of state savings include schools, he noted, pointing out that school budgets were constrained just a few years ago amidst an oil bust.
“Many in this chamber will remember when we were $800 million down; we were $1.3 billion down,” Thompson recalled.