Despite announcement of a state budget that provides a historic appropriation for schools, the Oklahoma Education Association and its allies continue to attack the plan even as lawmakers advance related legislation.
The budget plan announced this week by Gov. Kevin Stitt and legislative leaders includes funding for the second teacher pay raise in as many years, additional classroom funding, and increased state savings so schools will be protected from budget cuts in future economic downturns.
The plan provides an additional $157 million for K-12 schools this year. That increase, combined with last year’s funding, will result in a total increase of $638 million in K-12 school funding in just two years. Money will have been provided to give teachers a combined two-year pay raise of $7,320 apiece, on average.
Yet Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest quickly criticized the plan after it was announced, declaring it was “discouraging that the budget puts $200 million into savings when we could have made a bigger investment in our schools, our students and our future.”
The $200 million in savings represents just 1.1 percent of total state funding, and the state appropriation for education is expected to top $3 billion for the first time in state history this year.
Yet the OEA has continued to complain it should receive more. In a Facebook post, Priest doubled-down on her criticism of state savings, declaring, “So in this budget, we left $200 million off the table that could have really helped our students.”
The post was later taken down.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, whose work is often cited by groups like OEA, also criticized the budget. In a statement, Oklahoma Policy Institute Executive Director David Blatt declared there were “too many missed opportunities in this plan” and that the budget “reflects misplaced priorities by lawmakers.”
Like the OEA, he criticized lawmakers’ decision to build up state savings.
“Adding $200 million into the Rainy Day Fund, on top of the more than $400 million Rainy Day deposit already scheduled for the end of the year, is misguided while Oklahoma continues to leave so many urgent needs underfunded,” Blatt said.
Oklahoma Policy also criticized lawmakers for not revising the state’s Revenue Stabilization Fund, which receives energy tax revenues that exceed a five-year average. Oklahoma Policy has urged lawmakers to reduce the amount of money put into savings in that fund.
By the end of the year, Stitt expects to have $1 billion set aside in state savings, and his goal is to have $2 billion in reserve by the end of his four-year term. While both figures would be record amounts for Oklahoma government, officials in the governor’s office have noted $2 billion in savings will cover just three months of state spending. Also, the state has experienced a single-year shortfall of more than $1 billion in recent years.
Republicans leaders have defended their effort to boost savings, and note education is not getting shortchanged.
“As a successful entrepreneur and Oklahoma businessman, Governor Stitt understands the need to create an operating budget with a 10-year economic outlook and to prepare for unknown risks,” said Baylee Lakey, Stitt’s communications director. “State tax revenue is largely dependent on the volatile source of oil and gas production. By putting $200 million in savings now, with a goal of $2 billion in four years, we are ensuring that we will not have to cut core services, like public education, in the future.”
“The budget makes a significant investment of $157.5 million into education. It gives teachers a $1,220 pay raise and a substantial sum to the classrooms,” said Sen. Gary Stanislawski, a Tulsa Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “Locally elected school boards will be able to direct dollars where needed most for their district. They can hire additional teachers to reduce class sizes, purchase class supplies or take care of other classroom needs. All this was done while also saving $200 million for the future. When Oklahoma enters another recession the state will be in a better position to protect our children from budget cuts.”
When questioned about the amount put back into savings during a recent committee meeting, House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, replied that there was no better time “to start saving money than today and I know that there will be a shortfall coming at some point in the future.”
In that same meeting, Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, noted education groups had abruptly changed their tune.
“I know a few weeks ago there were education groups that said they wanted $150 million in common education, and then we released a budget with $157 million and they put out a press release saying they were disappointed,” Hilbert said. “So I don’t know what they want.”
Recent polling conducted by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates for the Consumer Coalition of Oklahoma found 73 percent of Oklahoma voters support setting aside $200 million for savings, even though the poll question was phrased as a choice between saving money or spending the cash to make up for past underfunding. Among Oklahoma Republicans, support stood at 84 percent.
(Update: This story was updated at 8:54 a.m. Monday, May 20, to include a statement from Governor Stitt's office.)