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March 15, 2014

State continues balancing act for needed funding

STILLWATER, Okla. — Economic growth could provide more money for primary and secondary education, Gov. Mary Fallin said last week.

The Republican governor added $50 million to common education in her proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, but most of that increase will be consumed by benefit costs. Common education’s proposed funding is $2.45 billion.

State aid remains more than $200 million below fiscal year 2008, while student enrollment has increased by 30,000 students.

Stillwater Public Schools is looking for ways to cut $1.8 million from its budget because state aid is down and student enrollment is up.

The recession hit Oklahoma hard in 2009 and 2010. The state’s revenue declined by $1 billion in each of those years. It dropped $500 million in 2011 — Fallin’s first year in office. Oklahoma officials drained the state’s Rainy Day account down to $2 and change.

“That’s $2.5 billion in shortfalls for our state, which out of a $7 billion is 20 percent,” she said. “We’ve been trying to make up that amount by growing the economy and getting Oklahoma back on track.”

Oklahoma’s unemployment rate is down. It has replenished its Rainy Day Account — approximately $500 million is available for emergencies.

“It’s going to take us awhile to get back to where we were because we went through such a sluggish period,” she said.

In 2014, the governor added $120 million for all branches of education. The 2015 budget proposal includes that $50 million for common education.

More people are moving to Oklahoma, which means more students for primary and secondary schools. The state ranks in the top 10 in population growth. The United States Census estimates the state’s 2013 population at 3.85 million, a 2.6 percent increase from 2010’s 3.75 million.

“We have new students coming into our schools,” she said.

Oklahoma spends 51 percent of its revenue on all branches of education, Fallin said. She doesn’t see a significant upward shift in that percentage because other areas — corrections, mental health services, child welfare, highway patrol, transportation and others — need additional appropriations, too.

“It’s a balancing act, prioritizing spending for critical needs, and also trying to grow the economy,” Fallin said. “We are hoping we can keep this momentum going for our state in job creation. Revenues are up for Oklahoma. If we can keep doing that we can prioritize our spending by putting essential resources where they need to be.”

Academic standards, accountability and transparency are part of the equation as well.

The state is implementing tougher standards for English and math, often referred to as Common Core. The State Department of Education also has implemented A-F report card for school systems and individual schools in the state.

“It’s important to let people know how their schools are performing, how their students are progressing and making sure that our children are getting the quality of education they need as they continue to go through school.”

Oklahoma high school graduates have a high remediation rate for English writing and math whether they go on to college or Career Tech. More than 40 percent of college freshmen must take the basics of math or English writing. It’s a big challenge in the Career Tech system, too, Fallin said.

The A-F report cards, Common Core and third-grade reading requirements aren’t designed to punish schools, she said. They should help schools identify problems and correct them, Fallin said.

“It should help superintendents get a plan of action so kids can do better,” Fallin said.

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