Friday, August 11, 2017

Top Receivers of State Appropriations-Common Ed, By Rep. John Bennett

Submitted By Rep. John Bennett

As promised, I am focusing on the ten state agencies that receive the largest amount of taxpayer money. This week, I’m discussing K-12 (common) education.  First and foremost I respect and appreciate the great responsibility our teachers have and the wonderful job they do. In no way is this article against the great job they do, it is simply transparency to let the taxpayer know where their tax dollar is sent.      

Common Education is No. 1 on the list for state appropriated dollars, receiving $2.45 billion, or 35 percent, of the entire state budget for Fiscal Year 2018. This amount includes a $51 million supplemental appropriation for FY17.  Altogether, this is $75 million more than common education actually received for FY17. An additional $11.1 million will be returned to common education that initially was withheld when the Office of Management and Enterprise Services declared a midyear revenue failure in February. Total overall education spending totals 48.4 percent of the entire state budget.

The greatest chunk of the appropriated money, almost $1.9 billion, flows through the state aid formula and goes to schools based on the number of students they serve and the issues those students have – such as whether they need special education services, whether they need to be taught English as a second language, whether they qualify for free or reduced lunch, etc. This is where much of the discretion exists in how schools spend their money. Do they put it more towards administration – hiring bigger administrative staffs, giving raises to those at the top? Or, do they send it to classrooms and teachers? Some of the money is spent on meeting state statutory requirements, such as on testing of state academic standards.

The next largest portion of the money goes to the Flexible Benefit Allowance, which pays for health insurance for teachers and support staff, which is in addition to and separate from their salary.

In a letter to the State School Board, Superintendent Joy Hofmeister pointed out that the most notable part of this year’s budget was the fact the Legislature was able to increase appropriations to fully cover the Flexible Benefit Allowance while maintaining other critical areas of budget such as the state aid funding formula.

She goes on to say that due to a small carryover amount in the Teachers’ Retirement System line item and slight savings accrued after the initial repeal of the end-of-instruction exams, the State Department of Education (SDE) was able to restore funding to key programs such as the Early Childhood Initiative and Reading Sufficiency. The programs bolster early literacy efforts for Oklahoma’s neediest early learners and struggling readers as schools implement more challenging academic standards. This is good news. Reading is the foundation for all other learning.

Hofmeister says, “This budget proposal also demonstrates a commitment to a well-rounded education through continued funding of the Oklahoma Arts Institute and Ag in the Classroom,” but then she says these modest funds allow only partial funding of things like the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness evaluation (TLE) and new professional development. I’m not against the arts, but I think our teachers deserve to be supported first. After all, having a great teacher in the classroom is the key to student success.

Hofmeister complains that the cut of $38 million to the Public School Activity line item last year has not been restored; “therefore, tremendous and essential programs in the support of children and educators have no funds available again for FY 2018.”

SDE received $91.3 million in the student activities fund last year and almost $93.1 million this year. Taken with the increased amount the department received overall, common education did get more funding this year and it should be going to pay for classroom materials and programs that make a difference in students’ lives. The Legislature doesn’t delineate everything in the activities budget, which covers everything from teacher’s retirement to testing to Sooner Start, an early prevention program for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities, to early childhood and reading sufficiency, and much more.

In addition to taxpayer dollars, our schools also get money from the lottery, Indian gaming, the Commissioners of the Land Office, mineral leasing and other sources, as well as federal, city and county funds. This year, the Legislature enacted several bills that will add revenue to schools. Among those were changes in oil tax incentives and a reversal of a tax rebate on the sale of cars.

Additionally, the Teacher’s Retirement Fund receives 5 percent of individual and corporate income taxes and 5 percent of sales and use taxes. For FY17, that amounted to roughly $280 million.

Education is important; it’s foundational for our children and their future lives. Common education was one of 15 state agencies held flat or receiving a slight increase in funding for FY18. Other agencies took an average cut of 4.2 percent in addition to the cuts they have taken in the past.

With all that said, I would ask why are we told our schools have no money? Our teachers are told by administrators they can’t afford raises, while some schools – like Tulsa – continue to pad their administrative staffs and give raises to those at the top instead of those in the classroom. We pay for some programs whether or not we have proven results of student success, while sometimes shorting the basics such as reading, math, science and history. With a little reprioritizing and some administrative cleanup, I think our students and our teachers would be better served, and our taxpayers saved from continually being asked to increase their donation to state government. The only way to truly know where the money is going is to conduct forensic audits of all state agencies. Accountability of our tax dollars is priority before we just throw more money at it. 

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