Each year, hundreds of bills and tax-related initiatives are approved that, when viewed independently, may not seem to have a significant impact. Yet by not connecting the dots of various actions when it comes to public schools, the picture of Oklahoma education becomes disturbingly distorted. If citizens don’t start connecting the dots, a true picture may never materialize.
Dot 1: Since 2008, Oklahoma schools have been cut more than $220 million, and fixed costs for items like fuel, utilities and insurance have increased. Our economy has performed better than most states, but Oklahoma’s school funding cuts are the nation’s third highest.
Dot 2: As school funding has declined, enrollment has climbed by more than 31,000 students. The percentage of students qualifying for additional services under state and federal law because of family income or disability also has increased.
Dot 3: Less funding and more students have led to larger class sizes. Retaining teachers for crucial shortage areas has become more difficult.
Dot 4: As less funding, more students and larger class sizes have occurred, state leaders have mandated several new unfunded reforms. While some could positively impact student achievement, they have price tags. Adoption of a new state curriculum and teacher evaluation system requires schools to spend money on teacher training, textbooks and additional computer hardware and software.
Dot 5: And as less funding, increased enrollment, larger class sizes and unfunded reforms have occurred, Oklahoma has cut its taxes at both state and local levels. State Question 766 is estimated to cost schools between $70 and $100 million next school year. Moreover, legislative leaders and the governor want to cut income taxes again. Their proposed cut would reduce state revenues by $237 million and return $80 in 2015 for the average household.
Connecting all these dots, you may think the picture of Oklahoma education is more students failing and dropping out and lower test scores. Fortunately, that isn’t the picture. More students are graduating under tougher academic requirements, and college-entrance scores have been flat. Yet the true picture is also a strained education system that lacks the capacity to absorb additional financial burden and meaningfully move forward.
Some lawmakers are pushing for between $50 and $100 million “more” for schools but aren’t taking into account the $70 to $100 million being cut from SQ 766. Regardless, if $50 to $100 million becomes reality, citizens will likely be told it represents a huge “boost” to school funding. They may even be told it allows schools to reduce class sizes, increase teacher pay, expand proven programs and pay for costly new reforms.
Hopefully, citizens will connect the dots and see that is not the picture.
Siano is superintendent of Norman Public Schools.