Education cuts prompt revolt, despair


By Justin Juozapavicius - Associated Press



TULSA (AP) — Oklahoma is accustomed to being at the back of the class in funding for public education: It ranks 48th among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia in teacher pay and 49th in spending per student.

But even many long-suffering Oklahoma educators and parents are revolting over the latest round of proposed cuts amid the state’s worst-ever budget crisis.

A crash in the oil and natural gas industry, the state’s economic lifeblood, reduced tax revenue. At the same time, Republicans, who hold every elected statewide office, charged ahead with income tax cuts that drain another $135 million in revenue each year.

“We cut taxes — that’s great, but at whose expense right now? It’s at the expense of my boys,” said single mother Angela Little, whose twin sons Cannon and Boston are fourth graders at West Field Elementary in Edmond.

Little was recently laid off as a data analyst from Devon Energy Corp. — a multibillion-dollar energy company that announced in February it was laying off 1,000 employees. She’s making ends meet, for now, with severance payments the company offered employees.

Across Oklahoma, school districts large and small are desperately trying to make it through the school year and planning deep cuts for the next one.

In the Tulsa suburb of Sapulpa, superintendent Kevin Burr is considering a proposal for as many as two “virtual” school days a week —where students interact with teachers through a digital platform from their homes— to help cut at least $2 million from next year’s budget in the 4,000-student district.

In Muldrow, a 1,500-student district in eastern Oklahoma, superintendent Ron Flanagan is consolidating bus routes to scrimp on fuel, not replacing teachers when they retire or leave and possibly slashing the school week to four days.

“You cut it to four days, that’s 36 Fridays worth of school lunches you wouldn’t have to buy,” said Flanagan, who’s taught in the district since 1985 and went to school here.

The Tulsa school district recently polled thousands of people on what programs they’d be willing to cut or do without next fall for its 40,000 students.

Fifteen options were offered, from slashing coaching stipends for athletics to eliminating bus transportation except for special education and homeless students. Perhaps the most draconian choice: moving to a four-day school week to absorb its part of the $1.3 billion state budget shortfall.

Even the suggestion of a four-day week was unthinkable a year ago in Oklahoma’s second-largest district, where the school board voted Monday to ax more than 140 teaching positions.

“It’s unacceptable to have a four-day school week,” Gov. Mary Fallin said at a recent news conference announcing cuts to balance the budget.

Fallin has proposed a budget for next year that would increase funding for K-12 education by about 4.6 percent from current adjusted spending of nearly $2.4 billion. Her plan would be paid for by issuing road bonds to free up cash and eliminating some sales tax exemptions, but so far those ideas have received a frosty reception in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The problem is that Oklahoma K-12 education spending has been stuck at around $2.4 billion annually for six years, according to state education department figures.

And what that figure doesn’t show is that actual spending per student has declined because the number of students has risen and fixed costs to operate things such as buildings have increased. So the state’s contribution to education has fallen 3 percent to $3,526 per student over the past six years — and that is from a level that was already among the lowest in the nation.

The rest has to be funded by local districts and many underprivileged urban areas and small rural towns have woefully inadequate property tax revenue.

According to the National Education Association, a teachers’ union, Oklahoma ranked at the bottom among U.S. states and the District of Columbia for education spending in the 2013-2014 school year, at 48th in teacher pay and 49th in spending per student.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman vowed recently that lawmakers won’t support any budget that cuts state aid to schools by more than 5 percent from last year’s adjusted amount. Because public education — including higher education and career technology centers — consumes more than half of the state-appropriated budget, it will be difficult for lawmakers to shield local schools from cuts.

Education funding has become so dire that longtime University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former governor and U.S. senator, is spearheading a ballot initiative for a one-cent sales tax with proceeds dedicated to a $5,000 pay raise for teachers and other education funding.

“We are just literally dismantling the system of public education in this state, all the way across the board,” said Boren, who added that the idea of school districts going to a four-day week is “like an underdeveloped country.”

But if approved, the one-cent increase would give Oklahoma the highest sales tax rate in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank that advocates for low tax rates.

Like every state, Oklahoma schools vary in quality and excel in some areas despite dealing with low funding. Oklahoma’s mean SAT score last year was 1693, above the national average of 1490, for example.

Dozens of educators are fighting the cuts by running for political office and organizing in groups to lobby lawmakers for better funding. Other teachers have given up hope that finances will improve in Oklahoma and are looking for jobs elsewhere.

“I have so many friends that are applying all over. Some would rather just live in Oklahoma and drive to Texas for the $10,000 salary increase,” said Torie Shoecraft, who teaches kindergarten at Nichols Hills Elementary in Oklahoma City.

Associated Press Capitol Correspondent Sean Murphy contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.

By Justin Juozapavicius

Associated Press

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