F for funding public education
Oklahoma ranks 48th in spending for public education. TulsaPeople explores the challenges caused by low state funding and what needs to happen to move our focus “back to school.”
East Central High School vocal music teacher Kevin Pearson, Tulsa Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year, says low funding levels are demoralizing to educators.
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When his fifth-grade homeroom teacher plopped a tub of Dubble Bubble chewing gum on her desk, Kevin Pearson realized what a powerful role teachers play in children’s lives.
The simple action was a game-changer for the 11-year-old because it came shortly after Pearson’s embarrassing diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome. He and his family tried medications and physical therapy to end the spasms, but nothing worked — except chewing gum.
Nervously, Pearson brought his doctor’s note to the principal and his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Julie Ward. The strict rule was no gum in class, and he was knock-kneed terrified of primary school humiliation.
The day Mrs. Ward walked into school with a tub of bubble gum under her arm, she didn’t address anyone in particular. But she said she’d changed her mind about her rule against gum.
“She said, ‘Everyone can chew gum if they want,’” Pearson says. “She made it very understated, but it completely changed my life. She took this ‘freak’ and made me feel normal. And that was spectacular.
“That’s why I went into teaching,” he says. “My goal is to reach all of my students. I knew what my mission was.”
Teaching against all odds
Fast-forward a few decades. Now Pearson is a vocal music teacher at East Central Junior High and was recently named 2013 Teacher of the Year for Tulsa Public Schools.
With his passion and dedication, Pearson is the kind of educator every school wants on staff. And yet he has chosen a modest position in a school with the odds stacked against it; he offers up folk music and Vivaldi and music literacy to some of the poorest middle schoolers in Tulsa. East Central has a 100 percent participation rate in the free and reduced-cost lunch program, Pearson says.
Yet he is sticking it out.
“I know I’m making an impact,” he says. “My students need me, and I need my students.”
Despite Pearson’s commitment, he and other Oklahoma teachers today face a number of troubling obstacles: increased pressure from state legislators demanding more accountability; larger class sizes and more grading; and the logistical nightmare of more and more high-stakes testing. All amid statewide budget shortages and unfunded mandates.
Money problems 101
Ask nearly any local educator, and they will likely agree that the biggest problem facing Oklahoma’s public education system is a lack of funding.
“Whenever we see those funding levels go down,” Pearson says, “not only does it impact us in the day to day, it demoralizes us as educators simply because we feel like we don’t matter.”
While public education is partially funded through local property taxes, approved bond measures and donations, the state government appropriates the greatest portion of funding — about 50 percent.
Yet since 2009, Oklahoma’s public education budget has been slashed by $221 million or 10.8 percent, according to data analyzed by the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI).
From 2009-12, the budget was cut each year as a result of falling state revenue. In 2013, it remained flat — but at less than the 2008 budget. However, less money post-recession did not slow enrollment. Oklahoma has enrolled 31,000 more children into its schools since 2008, bringing 2012-13 enrollment statewide to more than 670,000.
The lower-than-normal funding and increased enrollment has caused a drop in per-student spending by more than 20 percent since 2008, reports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Only Arizona and Alabama have cut per-pupil spending more deeply over the same period, ranking Oklahoma K-12 schools 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state also ranks 48th in spending on instruction and school-level administration.
While the most recent state legislative approval added $74 million to the state’s public education budget for FY 2014-15, the increase “will go toward the increased student load and not toward adding services or bringing down student-teacher ratios,” says Dr. Keith Ballard, TPS superintendent.
A supplemental budget of $17 million also was approved. However, this money is reserved for teachers’ flexible health benefits, which is technically required by law.
“We have a legislature that is not paying attention to these figures,” Ballard says. “We got $74 million in new money when there was a lot more money available. A lot more.”
Although state revenue has increased by $252.8 million in the past year, Ballard explains that until recently, the legislature used the additional revenue to replenish the state’s Rainy Day Fund instead of funding education at a greater level.
“In spite of the $74 million put back into education ... the Common Education share of total state appropriations has declined from 35.9 percent to 33.8 percent,” Ballard says. “The formula funding of Common Ed remains $213 below 2008 levels, despite an increase of 30,000 students statewide.
“This kind of puts the $74 million that the state has put back into education into perspective.”
Ballard became TPS superintendent in the thick of the 2008 recession. Since then, “the state (has) lost about $250-$280 million in education funding,” he says. “That cut Tulsa Public Schools by $22 million.”
How did the district make up for the significant budget crunch?
“We lost 225 teaching positions since 2009 and another 130 positions that are related to the Education Service Center (administrative positions),” Ballard says. “We don’t have enough teachers to do all of our work.”