School finance is complicated. Adequately educating two children in adjacent desks in the same classroom may cost different amounts of money. That’s the micro.Expand that to the whole school, district, state, and nation, and the levels of variance grow in countless dimensions. That’s the macro. Add to that ever-increasing regulations by the state and federal governments, and you have a loose framework for understanding what goes into funding public education.
Schools are more than teachers and students. They are principals, office assistants, paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and maintenance staff. In larger districts, add levels of district staff to manage the complex systems of technology and warehousing. Managing the athletic programs of a school takes additional personnel, or in many cases, additional duties thrust upon teachers and principals.
On top of that, public school enrollment continues to grow, and the state share of common education funding does not respond in kind.
The Oklahoma government has been slow to respond to this. Superintendent Barresi has been both dismissive of the need for more money in schools and later supportive of increased funding – as long as it supports her agenda and not what districts think they need. The governor thinks we can increase the amount of money that goes for instruction by consolidating schools. Meanwhile, some legislators think that they can’t proceed with increasing funding until schools can give them a dollar amount that would be enough.
To me, this is the wrong conversation and a waste of time. As the Oklahoma Policy Institute points out, schools are not throwing money down the drain on administrative costs. It takes a certain amount of overhead to run any organization. That’s true in the private sector as well. But when schools get more kids and more mandates, it’s not just the number of teachers that have to increase. It’s also instructive to point out that during the last five years – during which time per pupil funding has decreased – teacher salaries have risen, but only slightly.
We have cumulative unfunded needs in our schools. Every superintendent in the state could probably tell their legislators what they would do with 2 percent…5 percent…10 percent more in state aid. If that number increased to 20 percent, the list would still be pretty easy to fill. None of what schools would spend that money on would be what I would consider waste: long-overdue raises for teachers, additional staff positions – especially for students needing extra help, technology to meet the changing face of education, books for school libraries, repairs to facilities, professional development, textbooks, playground equipment, etc.
The bottom line is that nothing the state asks school districts to do is adequately funded.
The SDE proposed a large budget increase this year. The governor proposed a tiny one. As we approach the last month of the legislative session, two key questions remain.
- Will the increase to the education budget be large enough to make a difference to school districts’ bottom line?
- Will the legislature line item funding for the SDE, with very precise instructions for how any new monies are spent.
The answer to the second question is as important as the first. If the education budget is increased, but more money is not put into the funding formula, the SDE will be free to pursue larger testing contracts and professional development that ironically does not reach its intended audience very effectively. Hopefully the legislature learned that lesson last year.