Oklahoma School Funding Dilemma

Image of Picasso’s Old Guitarist

It comes as no surprise that recent information from the U.S. Census Bureau shows Oklahoma has one of the lowest rates of per pupil spending in the country.

Oklahoma has long been known across the nation as a state that fails to adequately fund its educational systems, and that has only been compounded in recent years because of state budget cuts. The state is also known as offering some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country. Education funding here is in a state of crisis.

Census information, according to media reports, shows Oklahoma spent $7,896 per pupil in 2010, only higher than Arizona, Idaho and Utah. The national average in 2010 was $10,615.

The longtime conservative argument here is that because the state has such a low cost of living the per pupil spending rate is either more than adequate or at least not as bad as it might seem. This argument, often made by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank or the editorial page of The Oklahoman, has never been adequately quantified.

Just how much do lower property prices here, compared with other places, lower the actual year-to-year cost of operating schools? There are still textbooks to purchase, teachers to pay and electricity and heating costs.

Even if we concede that lower property and building costs could have an impact on funding, does that mean the state should have the lowest per pupil rate in the region, lower than even Arkansas and New Mexico? Is the cost of living in Arkansas a lot higher than Oklahoma? Is Oklahoma such an awful place that everything here is so cheap, including housing and land?

The cost-of-living argument seems to be claimed under these overarching parameters: No one wants to live in Oklahoma; therefore, it’s cheap to live here, and, therefore, it doesn’t take whole lot of money to run our schools. What a self-defeating philosophy, but that’s what OCPA and The Oklahoman essentially argue.

Yet these are extremely old arguments that have been in play for years, and nothing is likely to change with Republicans firmly in control of state government. With the conservative push to cut and/or eliminate the income tax, the arguments become almost irrelevant. Public education is likely to suffer the most under any plan to cut the state income tax, and that’s likely to limit the state’s ability to expand economically, which, in turn, lowers the quality of life here.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank, pointed out recently that state funding for education has “declined by $214 million since FY 2008 while public school enrollment has increased by over 24,000 students. The result has been larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, and the loss of school programs and services.”

Education funding, as I mentioned before, is in a state of crisis, and responsible state leaders, whatever their political affiliation, should do something about it. If we don’t invest in education, we’re conceding a dismal future.