Educate Oklahoma: Education Budget Crisis

Monday, August 29th 2016, 2:28 pm
By: Aaron Brilbeck

A recent News On 6 Poll shows our public schools have plenty of room for improvement.

We asked Oklahomans what grade they would give Oklahoma schools. More people handed out Fs than As, but overall, Oklahomans give our schools a C+ grade.

Nearly 87 percent of people we surveyed believe funding is key to raising the grade. However, Oklahoma schools took a beating this year with massive cuts in state funding.

Nichols Hills Kindergarten Teacher Tori Shoecraft puts a smile on her face every morning, trying to make the best of a bad situation.  Specifically, the lack of money for schools and for teachers.

“It is frustrating,” says Shoecraft. “Especially when, as teachers and our principal, we are cutting back everywhere.”

The state's $1.3 billion budget deficit led to $74.4 million in cuts to public education. Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Aurora Lora says those cuts have been brutal.

“We had to cut $30 million which resulted in us laying off 208 teachers, 100 central office administrators, 100 operations workers,” said Lora. “Plus we had to slash budgets for supplies, cancel textbook orders, and defer maintenance on our buildings."

A one-time boost in state aid allowed the district to rehire all but 83 teachers.

“We invited a lot of people back, but unfortunately there are people who chose to leave the profession or went to other states for higher wages," said Lora.

Federal, state and county per-pupil spending is consistently rising, but not by much.  In November, taxpayers will consider a one percent increase in sales tax to pay for, among other things, a $5,000 pay increase for teachers.  The tax would raise $615 million, but only $378 million would be used for teacher pay increases.  The rest would be used for other education programs.

Dave Bond of conservative political think-tank OCPA Impact would rather see lawmakers cut unnecessary spending.

"They are willing if lawmakers at the state capitol can't figure out something else, they are willing to take one for the team, so to speak, and raise their own taxes, sales taxes to the highest in America," said Bond.

Bond suggests cutting $200 million in subsidies for out-of-state and foreign wind companies and consider using $40 million per year in funding from the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust. OCPA also recommends eliminating state sponsorship of NBA games and non-critical travel, saving $39.8 million , and using savings from Employee Health Insurance reform for raises.

"The floor on that is estimated at $100 million a year.  That's set to kick in as we understand it October first of this year. And those savings have not been predesignated in the budget state lawmakers just passed," said Bond. 

OCPA Impact says the state needs to focus on long term solutions, especially with another massive budget deficit and deeper cuts looming.