Funding, teacher shortage impact state education
With the current state of the economy in Oklahoma, the State Department of Education is looking at two big problems that have been festering — falling revenue and an ongoing teacher shortage.
In December, Preston Doerflinger, Oklahoma’s secretary of finance, announced the state was in the midst of a revenue failure and ordered across-the-board cuts of 3 percent to all state agencies, including the Department of Education. That amounts to a $46.7 million reduction in funding for pre-K through 12th-grade public education between January and June of this year.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said the cut was unavoidable, and hopes that school leaders will take the appropriate steps to make sure student learning does not suffer disproportionately.
“Now that we know the extent of the cut for the remainder of the fiscal year, school districts will soon be able to plan accordingly,” Hofmeister said. “The reduced funding was inevitable in the wake of the revenue failure, but I know that the Oklahoma State Department of Education and district leaders statewide are committed to lessening the impact on students as much as possible.”
According to Hofmeister, school districts will soon receive mid-year adjustments to reflect the revised figures.
“School districts will not be affected equally,” she said. “Some districts rely on state aid for upward of 90 percent of their budget. Others, particularly those in western Oklahoma, will feel very little impact from this cut.”
Even with the cut to funding, Hofmeister said she has the utmost confidence in teachers and administrators to make the best decisions.
“It is unrealistic to suggest there will not be some adverse effect on students, but Oklahoma educators will do what needs to be done to protect classroom instruction,” she said.
More financial woes
In addition to the revenue failure for the remainder of this fiscal year, the Oklahoma State Board of Equalization is predicting that fiscal year 2017 will be even more challenging. On Dec. 21, the Board of Equalization estimated that lawmakers will have to deal with a $900.8 million budget hole when they meet back in session next month.
Officials have said that they expect the hole to be even larger. Some projections are showing total funds for appropriation may shrink by almost 13 percent, making the funding for Oklahoma common education to look even more bleak.
While the complete financial impact to state funding for education is currently unknown, Rep. Earl Sears, who chairs the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, told the Examiner-Enterprise in December that he will do everything in his power to minimize the impact for Oklahoma schools.
“While I can’t promise that we will be able to hold funding for education flat again for this upcoming year, common education has been, and always will be a priority for me,” Sears said. “We will look at every available option to make sure that any cuts to education are as minimal as possible. It is too early in the process to know exactly what that number will be.”
The funding issue for education is causing other lawmakers to be creative in their thinking about how to save money. One option is the possible consolidation of school districts. Several bills have already been filed to begin that discussion. Senate Bill 906, authored by Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, would consolidate all school districts by county.
Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, chairs the Senate Education Committee. He told the Bartlesville Rotary Club on Monday that he is open to some ideas for consolidation, but not necessarily a county-based formula. He said he is exploring the idea of have smaller school districts that are near to larger school districts having the ability to consolidate for academic purposes, and that it would also save the state money. He has not crafted the language of his propose bill as of yet.
For the 2015-2016 school year, the State Department of Education has issued almost 1,000 emergency teaching certificates to help alleviate a shortage in teachers. Hofmeister called the problem a crisis, and formed a Teacher Shortage Task Force in September to make recommendations to the Oklahoma State Board of Education.
“The Teacher Shortage Task Force has offered a slate of creative, cost-effective steps that could begin to stem Oklahoma’s growing teacher shortage,” Hofmeister said. “It is imperative that we begin to test solutions to this crisis as soon as possible.
“While the task force is just getting started, it is already identifying actions we can take at the state, district and site level. Teachers are every school’s most valuable resource, which means any real solution to the shortage – no matter how small it may seem – ultimately benefits schoolchildren. Our kids can’t wait any longer for us to address this crisis, and I applaud the task force for its first round of recommendations.”
The task force provided many recommendations to the State Board of Education in December. Dr. Robin Miller, deputy superintendent for educator effectiveness and policy research, said the recommendations are a work in progress.
“These recommendations are the first step in our ongoing process to address Oklahoma’s severe teacher shortage,” Miller said. “The volunteers serving on this task force, who include legislators, educators, business leaders and others, will continue to refine existing recommendations and create new ones that can be enacted at every level of our state education system.”
A more detailed final report, including measuring the effectiveness of implemented strategies, is expected to be released this fall.