By March 2, 2016 Uncategorized 6 Comments

Last Friday, State Rep. Jeff Hickman took some time away from the Capitol to speak with a group of citizens at an Alva Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

According to this news report from the Alva Review Courier, Speaker Hickman covered a wide range of issues with the crowd, broadly covering issues like state corrections, tax incentive reform, internet sales, health care, judicial selection, and education policy and funding.

During his remarks, the Speaker lamented that while the legislature has hundreds of items under consideration this year, “it seems like only one or two issues have captured the attention of the social media and Internet, and makes it looks like that’s all the legislature is handling.”

I could make a comment about “hot kitchens” at this point, but I’m trying to refrain from snarkiness. (That’s for you, Jay–will I get some bonus points for civility?)

Anyhow, I digress.

Of course, the state budget crisis is on top of everyone’s mind. State agencies and schools are all concerned about the potential for yet another revenue failure on top of the three percent reduction we’ve already endured.

While painful, most Oklahoma school districts will be able to work through this year’s shortfall using existing fund balances. At the same time, some schools will not survive and it is likely that Oklahoma will have fewer districts to start the next school year.

“We do know that some school districts are going to have a very difficult time remaining open.”

– State Superintendent of Schools Joy Hofmeister, announcing $47 million in mid year cuts to Oklahoma school districts as a result of the state’s revenue failure

And the state’s financial situation will likely get worse before it gets any better.

If oil and gas revenues remain under projections and no new revenue streams are opened by lawmakers, the next few years could be catastrophic to public schools and other social agencies.

When speaking with education officials recently, some legislators have tried to remain upbeat and have sought to mitigate the potential reductions to public school funding. As a result, many school leaders are cautiously optimistic and working under the assumption that Common Ed may be afforded a “soft landing” in next year’s budget and avoid the more draconian cuts absorbed by other state agencies.

I’m not so sure about this.

After reading this comment that came out of the Speaker’s mouth Friday, it doesn’t seem at all likely that he will be working too hard on our behalf.

Did you catch the Speaker’s “15 percent reduction across the board?”

I don’t want to go into the weeds with Speaker Hickman at this point, other that to say he is being extremely misleading with his comments relative to common education funding.

In this case, it is the Speaker who is accusing school leaders of lying since we are the ones ostensibly spreading this “misinformation” about severe education cuts. The Speaker should be careful. He might get called out by Managing Editor of The Middle Ground News with this type of harassment and vitriol. What do you think, Jay?

David Blatt and the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI) have written extensively about Oklahoma’s economic situation, particularly inadequate funding of public education.

Rather than adding another 1,000 words to this page, I’ll just share one of OPI’s pictures:

The primary hole in Speaker Hickman’s argument is that we’re not talking about total dollars going to common education. We are talking about actual state funding for students, based on weighted average daily membership (WADM).

In their “increases to education funding” argument, the Speaker and others like to include things like off-the-top contributions to the Oklahoma Teacher Retirement System (OTRS) and increases to teacher flexible benefit allowances (FBA) necessitated by higher health insurance rates.

While these do represent increases to the TOTAL funding for common education, it doesn’t actually reach teachers’ hands. These are benefits, not increased salary. The Oklahoma Teacher Salary scale has not seen an increase since 2008.

TOTAL funding is simply not an accurate way to compare past and present funding levels. We all know $100 today doesn’t go as far as it did ten years ago.

The bigger issue that the Speaker fails to acknowledge is the growth in student population. The key metric for school districts is the amount of funding allocated per student.

As the above chart shows, the state formula spending per student, adjusted for inflation, has decreased by 23.6 percent since 2008, the largest percentage reduction in America over that time. This chart also reflects a statewide growth of nearly 50,000 new students in the past eight years.

If you seriously doubt that public schools are working with less money per student than in 2008, please schedule an hour to visit with your local district superintendent or financial officer. Speaker Hickman has an open invitation to schedule a meeting with leaders in my district any time he wishes.

It is important to remember that the House Speaker is one of a handful of state officials who do most of the heavy lifting with respect to the state budget. This group includes Governor Fallin, Budget Director Preston Doerflinger, and the Senate President Pro Tempore, Brian Bingman.

This means what Hickman says carries significant weight. If the Speaker honestly believes that schools have “more money than ever” and can sustain a 15% cut in the FY17 budget, he will have a strong influence over that decision.

This may just be one of those rare occasions when an elected leader says exactly what he is thinking.

From his remarks, Speaker Hickman does not seem to believe that common education has sustained any significant cuts over the past few years.

It also seems apparent that any hope on the part of school leaders for a “soft landing” may be premature.

In short, it’s way too early for any chicken counting because we know who’s tending the eggs.

We must continue to do all we can to inform our communities how these broken eggs and broken promises will affect the programs and services our schools provide for our children.

It’s not going to be pretty.

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