By Brian Bingman
Education will always be among the greatest priorities for the Oklahoma Senate. We owe it to every child in Oklahoma to continue pressing for higher expectations and a better educational experience. We want every child to reach his or her potential, regardless of socioeconomic status.
In recent years, our budget agreements have reflected a commitment to improve Oklahoma schools. Under last year’s agreement, $105 million in new funding was allocated to schools. Education got the single largest funding increase for any sector of state government, while other agencies had their budgets reduced. This year, education was held harmless, despite a budget shortfall in excess of $600 million. The four years prior to the shortfall saw steady increases in funding for schools.
A recent report from a liberal think tank suggesting Oklahoma led the nation in education funding cuts has garnered significant attention. This report stretches the truth beyond the breaking point. The report failed to consider the total dollars available to school districts. It excluded local and federal funding. Worse, the report also failed to account for state-level education funding sources such as ad valorem reimbursement funds, motor vehicle taxes, gross production tax funds, and record revenues from state land funds for schools.
In the past five years alone, more than $380 million in revenue has been distributed to state schools from the Commissioners of the Land Office. Not one dollar of it was factored into this report, but $380 million is no small sum. Additionally, the report refers only to K-12 spending, but Oklahoma’s funding formula also pays for pre-K.
A valid comparison would account for all funding sources, the numerous differences in funding formulas among the states, and factors such as per capita income and state economic output. Without consideration of these factors, the study doesn’t provide us with an accurate look at education funding in Oklahoma.
We’ve worked hard to increase investment in education in recent years, and we intend to build on these gains and ensure that more money reaches Oklahoma classrooms. But while money is important in education, it isn’t everything: Washington, D.C.’s per-pupil funding exceeds Oklahoma’s by nearly $16,000, but its schools consistently rank near the bottom for student performance.
Higher standards for student achievement are just as critical for classroom success. Providing better tools to evaluate progress and empowering families with greater freedom of choice in education will also produce improved educational outcomes.
Reforms achieved in recent years have placed Oklahomans back in control. They gave us an opportunity to build a plan for student achievement crafted specifically to the needs of our schools. Senate Republicans have consistently supported legislation establishing higher academic standards. We will continue working with local districts to assist them in reaching those benchmarks.
In today’s economy, employers will only expand in states that are up to the task of accommodating them. We must have high standards to broaden our base of educated workers and ensure that our students are college and career ready to meet that challenge. By doing so, we can promote the best policy to strengthen our schools.
Brian Bingman, a Republican from Sapulpa, is president pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate.