Education Funding Realities in Oklahoma

On March 10, 2016, Chad Alexander interviewed Oklahoma Finance Director Preston Doerflinger for his radio talk show on News Talk 1520, KOKC in Oklahoma City.
You can listen here if you are so inclined,  but this post will only address a small part of Mr. Doerflinger’s comments.

In a discussion about the use of state rainy day funds for shortfalls in prison and education funding Mr. Doerflinger appears to approve of the spending on prisons but not on schools.   He uses the phrase “….throwing money at education.”   The purpose of this post is to shine the light on education funding realities in Oklahoma so as to blow up the use of the phrase “throwing money at education.”

It is not a good idea, in fact, to throw money at anything in state government, least of all education.   So there is no argument with the intent of this phrase in that respect.   The point is, that with traditionally low funding for education in Oklahoma, we have never thrown money at education at any point in state history.

We have NEVER thrown money at education in the history of the state of Oklahoma.

After the passage of HB 1017 during the Bellmon administration Oklahoma’s education finding climbed in to the low thirties when compared to other states.  It was somewhat of a heyday in education.  Oklahoma schools  still did not have the funding available to Texas schools, but the funding cuts before HB1017 had led to deferred maintenance and many other serious cuts.  Over time this increase was gradually siphoned away.  Schools were working, but teacher salaries were low compared to the region and the nation.

Other things I personally observed:   Early in my career, I remember our superintendent bragging that 80% of the budget went towards salaries.   I have yet to find a school district that spends that percentage these days.  Most schools are in the 90% range.    I also remember a time when school buses could be purchased without passing bond issues.   Oklahoman’s have been very good about pledging their local tax money to buy buses.  But we use to be able to buy buses in many districts without bonds.  That means we paid cash instead of borrowing.   If there is a school that pays cash these days someone let me know.

It is exceeding difficult to get the Oklahoma GDP during Henry Bellmon’s term. It was, as I recall, quite good.  The national GDP growth was steady and the state is always close, although sometime behind. Somehow the tax increases during the Bellmon years did not stymie state economic growth.   But I digress.

There are many things purporting to be valid studies and reports about education funding and school growth.  To get really accurate numbers it is good to contact a local Oklahoma school system and ask a financial person to explain their situation.  They may not have time since their  department has probably been downsized several times and they have a lot of work to do.

This blog is all about in depth analysis. But it is important to get the word out simply and in a hurry. Since most will not have time to personally check with a local school district, here is a real world example from a video presentation by Dr. Jarod Mendenhall, Superintendent of Broken Arrow Public Schools.   The video will be linked at the end of the article.

Broken Arrow Budget Cuts 2016

It is easy enough to see that as enrollment has increased state funding has decreased.  And in this time of increasing enrollments the state revenue failure is not keeping up.  And now further cuts are being made during the fiscal year.  More are projected for next year.

Dr. Mendenhall’s presentation is detailed and thorough.  I urge you to watch.  But the meat of this post, just to spell it out, is this:

We have never thrown money at education in Oklahoma

We are not now throwing money at education in Oklahoma.  We are cutting, in fact.

It is going to get much worse without action at the state level.

Our story is different and cannot be explained by rhetoric popular in national discussions.
This could be fodder for a future blog post.  Stay tuned.

For the promised video link click here.



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