In his 17 years as a school official in Oklahoma, Robert Romines has dealt with more than his share of painful situations. In 2013, as superintendent in the town of Moore, he had to shepherd his system through the aftermath of a tornado that caused $2 billion in total damage, destroying entire neighborhoods and taking down two elementary schools. Today, he is up against a subtler but deeply corrosive attack on his schools: death by a thousand spending cuts.
No state has suffered more than Oklahoma when it comes to education funding over the past decade. As it has struggled to balance its budget in the face of declining oil revenue, spending on schools has declined further than anywhere else. Oklahoma now spends $1 billion less on K-12 education than it did a decade ago. One in five of its school districts has opted for a four-day school week; the base minimum salary for educators hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade; and emergency credentials are being awarded at a record pace to help fill teacher vacancies. Arts programs are going away. Some schools are consolidating their sports programs with other schools to save money. Funding was cut in this year’s education budget for the statewide science fair, in which students compete for awards and scholarships.
In Moore, Romines has tried to hold off as long as possible from making budget cuts that directly impact students. But in the last few years, he has had no choice. Among the hardest decisions was abandoning the district’s rule that limited the size of classes to 24. Now, there’s technically no limit. He’s had to cut honors and AP courses where only 18 or 19 students test in because he can no longer justify the cost of the small class size. As a parent with two kids of his own in the school system, Romines says it’s disheartening to see his son and daughter in classes with up to 34 other students. “We are squeezing kids in these classes,” he says. “The teachers have done an excellent job in keeping up. But to be quite honest with you, that’s not something our teachers are going to be able to accomplish year after year and still produce the same product when our kids graduate.”
The years since the Great Recession have been difficult on public education practically everywhere in the country, as states have been forced to adjust to a new spending reality. In the decades prior to the recession, public education enjoyed steady funding increases. Between 1994 and 2004, average per-pupil spending across the nation increased by nearly 24 percent. But after 2008, state revenues plummeted -- some by as much as a quarter. Governments had to react quickly and drastically, and in most cases relied heavily on slashing budgets. “There’s no way to cut your way out of a recession that deep without touching K-12 schools,” says Erica Williams, an education researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). She says that before the recession, education funding had been a “bipartisan third rail,” immune to significant reduction. “We saw a full reversal of that during the fiscal crisis,” she says. “Now, it’s really hard to make up that lost ground.”
Indeed, the recovery nationally has been slow, particularly for schools. Some state budgets still haven’t fully recovered when inflation is taken into account. Today, 23 states are providing less education formula funding -- which typically accounts for half of elementary and secondary school budgets -- than they did in 2008, according to the CBPP. Schools have restored just one-third of the 351,000 jobs cut in the aftermath of the downturn.
Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist says the frequent departure of teachers shows that the state is "not investing." (Tulsa Public Schools/Tracy Kouns)
But slow revenue growth isn’t the only reason some states have seen drastic cuts in education spending. Of the eight that have cut general funding per student by 10 percent or more since 2008, five -- Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin -- have also enacted substantial income tax rate cuts. In Kansas and Oklahoma, those cuts, which some hoped would jump-start the economy, have served only to constrain the state’s revenues. Making matters worse, oil prices began a dramatic downturn in 2014. In Oklahoma, where oil and natural gas extraction accounts for more than 11 percent of the economy, that’s led to even more spending reductions -- which aren’t just limited to the budget-making season. In April, for example, Oklahoma schools were notified that their monthly payments from the state would be shorted by an additional $17.4 million. That brought the total reductions since January to nearly $87 million.
School advocates in Oklahoma have long argued that the state doesn’t spend enough on education. Now there is broad agreement that a crisis exists. But beyond that, there’s been little consensus on how to fix the problem. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has made efforts to raise more money through various revenue enhancements, including a statewide tax on services. So far, she has been unable to persuade her fellow Republicans in the legislature. For the short term, schools and lawmakers are focused on stopping the bleeding. Many worry that any lasting solution to Oklahoma’s school finance problems is a long way off.
Sitting on Superintendent Deborah Gist’s desk in Tulsa is a flyer from the Dallas Independent School District in Texas. It features three smiling teachers with the caption “Oklahoma, Join Us!” and advertises information sessions and interview dates over three days in Oklahoma City. Dallas’ advertised starting salary of $50,000 is eye-catching for teachers in Oklahoma, which ranks 49th in the nation in teacher pay. It’s a far cry from Tulsa’s $33,900 starting salary, which is slightly higher than the state teacher median.
Out-of-state teacher recruitment has been happening in Oklahoma for decades. Gist herself was lured away to Texas when she started out as a teacher in the late 1980s. But lately, the efforts by out-of-state school districts have been brazen -- and effective. That’s evident in the number of emergency credentials Oklahoma has had to issue as it deals with a growing teacher shortage. As recently as 2012, only 30 emergency certifications were issued. The past two school years have each seen more than 1,000. It’s added to the anxiety many parents and community groups already have about their public schools. “They worry about their teachers,” Gist says. “When they have a beloved teacher or principal and get news that person is leaving, that demonstrates what we’re not doing as a state. It’s clear we’re not investing.”
Oklahoma has never been at the top of the list in support for education. During 2008 and 2009, the high points of per-pupil funding, it spent just under $8,000 per student and ranked 47th in the nation. The political leadership of the state has generally argued that more money doesn’t always make things better. Indeed, Utah, which spends less per pupil than Oklahoma does, now ranks 32nd in Education Week’s “Quality Counts” report, while Oklahoma remains in 47th place. Conservative think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation make similar arguments regarding spending and student performance. One Cato study found that American students’ mathematical and verbal skills have actually declined over the past 40 years, while per-student spending has tripled.
But in recent years, Oklahoma’s funding naysayers have grown quiet as public schools have been forced to cut into the student experience via larger classes, reduced bus transportation and a shorter school year. In Tulsa, students are in class seven fewer days than the national average of 180 per year. It might not sound like much, Gist says, but it matters. She likes to compare her district to one in the Houston suburb of Aldine, Texas, which is three days below the national average but has a school day that is 30 minutes longer. “By the time a student graduates from high school in Aldine,” Gist says, “he or she would have had two more years of instruction than we have here.”
Many cite 2014 as the moment when conversation inside the state Capitol began to focus on finding a new, dedicated source of funding for schools. That was the year Oklahoma took over the No. 1 spot as the state that had cut education funding most deeply since the recession. Tens of thousands of teachers took a day off from school -- effectively shutting down school districts for that day -- to rally in front of the Capitol building. Even the state’s free market think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, began saying that teachers needed a base pay raise. The following year, University of Oklahoma President David Boren began advocating for a measure to raise the state’s sales tax by one percentage point as a way to boost teacher pay and education funding.
Gov. Mary Fallin has called for $1.5 billion in tax hikes and permanent revenue increases to help fund education. (AP)
But the timing couldn’t have been worse: 2014 was the year oil prices began their rapid decline and Oklahoma began scrambling to balance its budget. It was also the first year of a phased-in reduction in income taxes. Instead of considering new funding streams for public education, lawmakers in Oklahoma City were in budget crisis mode. Since then, they have struggled to cover the shortfall in the general fund. One reason is that any tax hike requires a supermajority -- 75 percent approval -- to make it through the legislature. This year, lawmakers faced a massive $1.3 billion deficit, roughly 20 percent of the budget. They closed it via a combination of revenue increases of about $900 million and more cuts -- but most of the revenue increases are non-recurring. That means there will be another shortfall in the 2018 budget.
As the cutting has continued, finding a fix for education has proved elusive. Last year, Boren’s proposed sales tax increase made it to the ballot. But Oklahomans decisively -- and surprisingly -- struck down the proposal, 59 percent to 41 percent. Many say the rejection wasn’t because the public opposed more money for education, but because voters felt the burden would fall disproportionately on those with modest incomes.
The effort to find more money continues. Fallin, who seven years ago wanted to phase out Oklahoma’s state income tax, went to the legislature this year with a budget that called for $1.5 billion in tax hikes and permanent revenue increases as a way to help education and shore up the budget. The proposal included taxing nearly all services, raising taxes on tobacco and fuel, and imposing a new tax on wind production and electric cars. It was not an idea that attracted much support among the Republican legislative majority, but it reflected a remarkable turnaround for a small-government conservative governor. “Had it come from a Democratic governor,” says David Blatt, executive director of the nonpartisan Oklahoma Policy Institute, “it would have been skewered as being a tax-crazy liberal budget.”
Ultimately, lawmakers kept school funding flat and made cuts elsewhere for the 2018 budget. The deficit was closed with the help of one-time fixes and some new revenue like a $1.50-per-pack cigarette fee and reduced corporate tax incentives for oil and gas companies. When it comes to stabilizing the budget for the long-term, various ideas remain on the table. One is an effort to halt the next scheduled income tax cut. Some are clamoring for more reduced tax subsidies to corporations. At least, Blatt says, “there is now widespread awareness that we do have a revenue problem. There’s an openness to tax increases we have not seen in the state at least for 25 years.”
But for many, there’s still too much uncertainty about the future, and in some instances, it’s having a chilling effect. That’s the case for Tulsa native Marni Stilson, who in 2012 moved with her husband from the high-priced Washington, D.C., area back to Oklahoma for the lower cost of living. Now she has a daughter who is three years away from entering kindergarten, and has watched with frustration as programs have been cut and her local elementary schools consider a consolidation. “I want to send my kid to a public school,” she says, “but I cannot send her to one of the schools here.”
It’s led to an ironic turn of events. The desire for a family-friendly lifestyle played a big role in the Stilsons’ decision to move back to Oklahoma. Now, the family is the main reason they’re thinking of leaving. “I’m not sure that when we came here, we expected to move again,” she says. “Now we’re doing everything we can to leave in a couple years.”