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Siano: Legislators have options to reduce impact to education

Many Oklahomans are likely aware of the state’s revenue failure, which resulted in mid-year reductions of nearly $110 million for public education. What they may not realize is while legislators have options to fulfill their obligations and close the gap, some are doing the opposite and promoting initiatives that would divert even more funds away from public education.

Oklahoma’s drop in per-student spending since 2008 remains largest in the country. Since January, funding cuts for this fiscal year equate to a loss of nearly $1.8 million in Norman Public Schools alone, and we anticipate additional reductions. It’s worth mentioning that even before this year’s budget cuts, our district was already forced to operate with about $5 million less per year than we did seven years ago while serving more than 2,000 additional students.

Mid-year budget cuts should be unacceptable. With three months left in the school year, we have obligations that must be fulfilled. And, while state law mandates that several specific programs are offered to students, districts are still legally required to offer programs without being provided the funding to do so.

As we face significant shortfalls in the state budget, it’s disappointing that several state leaders are spearheading an effort to divert funds intended for public education to private schools. This effort would provide taxpayer funds to students who wish to attend private school through education savings accounts, which are also known as vouchers.

The reality is that vouchers largely would provide subsidies to families who in many cases can already afford to send their children to private school, as data from states that offer vouchers suggest they benefit families who have more financial means. In addition, while public schools are held accountable for how state funds are spent and are also required to impose specific state and federally mandated accountability measures, private schools would receive taxpayer funds without having to follow the same mandates.

The initiative has also been touted as a measure that will save public schools money - a claim based on misleading and incomplete information. The math is actually quite simple. If the state increases the number of students who receive state funding without a significant increase in funding for public schools, that decreases the money available per student.

Simply put, vouchers do not promote equality in education, which is exactly what our state leaders should be fighting for. All children have a right to a quality education. If state legislators believe public education is not sufficient for Oklahoma’s students, they should invest the state’s resources to improve education for all of our children.

At a time when public school districts’ revenue has been drastically reduced and services to students are on the line, the promotion of vouchers demonstrates how some state leaders are indifferent - or even dismissive - to the needs of our children. I hope in the end we can all agree this is not the time to decrease funding for public education.

Vouchers aside, legislators have the option to meet their current financial obligations by tapping into the Rainy Day Fund, which was designed to carry state operations forward in the event of a revenue failure. It’s not just raining in Oklahoma; it’s pouring. Now is the time for our legislators to demonstrate their leadership and act immediately to close the gap, as it is much easier to plan for future shortfalls rather than receive mid-year reductions.

Longer-term, legislators need to know their constituents expect them to fulfill their promises and minimize negative impacts on education. One idea to address funding challenges is the penny sales tax initiative spearheaded by President Boren. This bold initiative would provide a sustainable revenue source that could go a long way in protecting and enhancing critical services for students.

In Norman, we have demonstrated fiscally sound and prudent financial practices. Because we anticipated funding cuts, we focused on growing our fund balance. In the event legislators choose not to fulfill their obligations, these funds will allow us to protect student services and retain our teachers for the remainder of the school year. However, if we are forced to deplete our limited reserves now, we will not be in a position to absorb further allocation reductions next year.

The future of our students - and our state - is too important to minimize with continued funding reductions. Our state’s leaders must employ immediate solutions, demonstrate vision and provide adequate resources for the next generation of Oklahomans. Our teachers, administrators and staff do this every day. I hope we can count on the legislature to step up and join us.

Dr. Joseph Siano
Superintendent, Norman Public Schools