Oklahoma lawmakers mull simplifying school funding formula
By BEN FELDER
Nov. 06, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — State lawmakers are in the early stages of possibly changing Oklahoma's complex school funding formula, which has remained virtually unchanged for 36 years despite major shifts in public education and student needs.
"The main reason the (funding) formula hasn't been touched ... is when you mess with it there is going to be winners and losers," said Matt Holder, deputy superintendent of finance and federal programs for the state Department of Education.
Holder recently gave a presentation to a newly created task force that is charged with making recommendations to improve the state funding formula by the end of 2018, The Oklahoman reported.
But any proposed changes would likely face political opposition as it could result in some schools receiving less funding.
"I'm sure there is a little trepidation by everybody," said Mike Anderson, superintendent of Ada schools, who is a member of the task force. "What I think everyone has to understand is that those of us receiving state aid can't operate on less. We are at the minimum at this point in time. We need some stability and the ability to budget, and with that maybe becomes a more simplified formula."
Education funding is a topic of great debate at the state Capitol as the state's per-student allocation to public schools has dropped over the last several years, forcing many schools to cut programs and staff positions.
During the challenging fiscal climate, some lawmakers have scrutinized the way school districts spend money and have raised questions about the state funding formula.
All six legislators on the task force are Republicans. The task force also includes school superintendents, education advocates and state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.
Established in the early 1980s, Oklahoma's public school funding formula determines school district allocations based on a series of demographic and staffing factors.
School districts receive more money from the state for students with special needs, living in poverty or considered English language learners.
The state formula also addresses some of the inequity that previously existed when one school with higher local tax revenues had more money than a school in a more economically challenged community.
However, 64 school districts last year generated too much local tax revenue to qualify for the state's school funding formula.
The total funding package for most school districts relies on a mix of local, state and federal dollars. The state funding formula accounted for over $1.8 billion in school funding last year, the bulk of which comes from general revenue appropriated by the state Legislature.
Since the funding formula was adopted, the state's public school system has become more diverse with different formats.
"We have K through 12 school districts versus K through 8 school districts versus charters versus the online (charter) schools, so we've really got four ways that money is being doled out," said Jack Herron, who served as assistant superintendent for finance under state school superintendents Sandy Garrett and Janet Barresi.
Herron attended a recent task force meeting as an observer, but reminded members that effort to change the formula in the past often faced political resistance.
Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, told the task force that changes were proposed a decade ago in a previous task force.
Those proposals failed to gain Legislature approval, which Hime blamed on politics and the economic recession.
Hime also told the task force that to successfully make any changes this time around would probably require some additional funding to help phase in changes that might initially decrease funding for some schools.
"Any bill that has a state aid formula (change) in it scares the bejesus out of people," Hime said. "But if you can phase it in and say (to a school) 'next year you're going to get as much as you did last year' ... it's a lot more likely to pass because it's the right idea."
Some of the ideas Hime brought to Friday's meeting included changing the current system where a school gets more money for a gifted student than one facing economic disadvantages, which he said didn't reflect the need between each type of student.
Hime also recommended that there not be different funding amounts for students in different grade levels, which is currently the case.
Sen. Gary Stanislawski, who is co-chair of the task force, said his goal in reviewing the formula and offering recommendations would be based on equity that makes sense for today's school climate.
"It's not about the districts, it's about the students. It should be an equitable formula for the students," Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, said. "We are going to find out it's not that simplistic. But we really need to figure this out to ensure that it's truly equitable."