A recent report on state funding of K-12 education brought disturbing news. The report, by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, shows that in real dollars, Oklahoma's funding for schools has shrunk nearly 23 percent, or by $810 per student, since 2008. That's a deeper cut than any other state in the nation.
At the other end is North Dakota, which actually boosted education funding by more than 27 percent over the same period. The economies of Oklahoma and North Dakota share some similarities. Both have had relatively low unemployment. Both benefitted from an energy boom spurred by new drilling technologies. The difference is that North Dakota used this prosperity to invest in its children. Oklahoma has not.
Most state leaders and economic experts agree that a lack of well-educated workers is a threat to Oklahoma's prosperity. Research shows that having better-educated workers boosts wages more than any other factor, by far. As Gov. Mary Fallin said when announcing her appointment of a new secretary of education and workforce development, “Good schools help drive economic growth and job creation because they provide the education and training ground for our workforce.”
Fallin and state lawmakers frequently speak about the importance of education, but their rhetoric hasn't matched their actions. Education funding was increased slightly this year, but not by enough to keep up with inflation or the growing number of students, much less make up for the dramatic cuts since 2008.
We can see the results in the classroom — growing class sizes, high teacher turnover due to stagnant salaries, classes with more kids than textbooks. We've cut proven programs to help at-risk students and boost third-grade reading abilities. The number of Oklahoma school districts offering advanced placement classes has fallen every year for the past five years.
Even as we cut their funding, we're asking more from students and schools. We created new mandates for high-stakes testing and harder curriculum. What message does it send when we demand higher expectations for schoolchildren, but we aren't willing to invest in them?
If lawmakers want to bring some reality to their pro-education rhetoric, they need to rein in unnecessary tax credits, especially ballooning tax breaks to the oil and gas industry. They also need to stop the march of income tax cuts that are ratcheting down our capacity to invest in schools. At the same time as Oklahoma slashed education funding, lawmakers allowed another income tax cut to be phased in last year; they scheduled even deeper cuts for 2015 and 2016.
The upside is that a growing number of Oklahomans are becoming aware of the funding crisis in our schools and are speaking out. Elected officials would be wise to listen.
Perry is a policy analyst for Oklahoma Policy Institute (www.okpolicy.org).