Oklahoma’s School Funding Woes are Windfalls to Some Virtual Schools.
Oklahoma, since 2008, has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in cuts to public education. This has occurred through a curious combination of economic reversals and partisan politics favoring tax cuts and corporate breaks.
The funding cuts to common education have meant laying off employees, deregulating school library requirements, including staffing libraries with certified school media specialists, and buying library books to support the school. Class sizes have increased, and educators have abandoned the state to either leave the profession or teach in a neighboring state, all of whom have higher pay schedules for teachers.
A ballot initiative, SQ779, would have funded teacher raises with a new sales tax. While communities who border other states, and who have lost teachers, and other small pockets across the state supported the measure, it was defeated in November 2016. The 2017 Legislative Session held some promise and words of commitment to providing teacher pay raises, nothing materialized as the Legislature battles with ideological concerns of raising taxes. Citizens’ groups joined educators in their demands for increased funding, and adding more research to the discussion. Oklahoma, like its neighbor, Kansas, has fully committed to cutting taxes to build a more robust economy.
So, school funding continues to be cut, including this year, the midyear adjustment of funding for schools that see an increase in student enrollment. Schools often rely on this adjustment to make ends meet, especially in this climate.
The two largest public school districts in the state, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, saw a decrease…an additional cut, of $2.7 million and $2.1 million, respectively, in their allocation. The biggest winners of the midyear adjustment were virtual charters in the state. In Oklahoma, charters are classified as public schools, and share some funding with their public school counterparts. Four virtual charters saw large increases in their adjustment. EPIC Charter received an increase of $18.67 million, and three other virtual charters saw increases of a total of $4.71 million. This funding inequity will affect classrooms throughout the state. EPIC lures public school teachers to their school with promises of impressive teacher raises, with merit-pay bonuses.
Two Extraordinary Sessions, designed to increase state revenue, to adequately fund state health services, and to provide raises for teachers were filled with rancor and blame, finding only cosmetic solutions. The state’s oil industry fractured in its position on raising the Gross Production Tax on operating oil wells, and negotiations stalled for increasing the industry’s contribution to state revenue.
Schools continue to suffer, and teachers continue to move out of state or out of the profession, creating a teacher shortage being addressed with alternatively-certified teachers and emergency-certified teachers.
With a Governor’s race in 2018, the Oklahoma education community is looking at candidates through the lens of candidates’ attitudes toward increased state revenue, which will add needed funds for Oklahoma schools. The front-runner, Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb, is on record this week as opposing any increase in taxes as part of any funding fix.
The 2018 Legislative Session begins in February, with no clear idea of how legislators will increase funding for schools, and other vital state services so necessary for our students and their families. Inequity of opportunity has become the norm for many public school students.