(How could the so-called “Obama effect” influence Oklahoma’s 2010 elections? Read DocHoc’s commentary this week in the Oklahoma Gazette, the state’s finest alternative newspaper.)
Looming, “devastating” financial cuts in education is yet another reason the Oklahoma Legislature should meet in a special session to craft a new budget strategy for this fiscal year and to tap into the state’s $600 million Rainy Day Fund.
On Thursday, the State Board of Education learned that an important source of funding for public education—the revolving 1017 fund, which accounts for more than 25 percent of all school funding—is almost empty of reserves, according to the Tulsa World.
Overall, state revenues are in a serious decline, coming in way below estimates for the first quarter of this year. State leaders expect tax revenues will continue to slide. Most state agencies are now experiencing a five percent or more budget cut on a monthly basis. This has affected many state programs. For example, the state’s senior nutrition program, funded through the Department of Human Services, has experienced a $7.4 million cut.
According to the World, State Superintendent Sandy Garrett had this to say about potential cuts in education:
Our concerns are: If the general fund revenue is being reduced by 5 percent each month and we potentially have another reduction, we think that will be devastating to our schools. We just ask them (local school boards) to look very carefully at their budgets and try to protect that teacher in the classroom. But when it's that much of their budget, that's hard to do.
It’s vitally important, as Garrett suggested, to ensure teaching positions are not cut during this financial downturn. Teacher layoffs, if widespread, would obviously hurt student-learning outcomes. School children would lose out. Oklahoma already has underfunded schools, which has helped create low college graduation rates here. More cuts would be absolutely devastating. That’s not hyperbole
As I wrote in my previous post, the Oklahoma Legislature could meet in a short special session to deal with anticipated revenue declines, protecting, as much as possible, education, health programs and social services from deep cuts. State leaders could craft a new budget strategy for this year, taking a proactive rather than reactionary stance. The legislature could also use some of the state’s Rainy Day Fund to help shore up the finances of vital institutions, such as the state schools. As it stands now, the legislature will not meet until February.
Declining energy production tax revenues and recent tax cuts passed by the legislature that primarily benefited the state’s wealthiest citizens have created a real budget crisis for the state. Obviously, tax hikes are out of the question in Oklahoma because of its conservative politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, but at the very least state leaders could come up with a more specific and targeted plan to meet the current crisis.