If Oklahoma's economy continues to produce growth revenue next fiscal year, the bulk of new funds should be set aside to meet needs in the state's public school system, according to two key state lawmakers who oversee public school legislation.
Senator Penny Williams and Senator Cal Hobson said they want to stake an early claim for education funding so that there is no confusion about fiscal priorities when initial budget estimates are made later this year.
"Everybody always says they support education before the budget is written, but when it finally comes to dividing up state resources, our public schools seem to get pushed to the end of the line. We would like state policy makers to make an ironclad commitment to education long before the budget projections and negotiations begin. We hope Governor Keating and others will join us," said Senator Hobson, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
The two state lawmakers noted that Oklahoma has many unmet needs in its K-12 public schools that demand attention. A number of new initiatives mandated by Oklahoma's 1999 school reform measure must be addressed in the coming months as well.
HB 1759 stated that the state would fund full-day kindergarten, summer academies, before and after-school programs and other reforms when Oklahoma education spending reached 90 percent of the regional average - a milestone that the state is expected to reach next February when the National Center for Education Statistics releases new funding comparisons.
"When that determination is made, we will be required to carry through with the rest of the reforms detailed in that legislation. Worthy programs like all-day kindergarten and summer academies will never materialize unless we make a strong commitment to education funding. We've drafted a great blueprint for student success, now it's time to pay for it," said Senator Williams, chair of the Senate Education Committee.
According to the two legislators, education experts are currently urging states to consider adopting reforms that are similar to those already enacted in Oklahoma. Where Oklahoma falls short is in the area of funding, ranking in the bottom five in per pupil expenditures and teacher pay.
"We're at the head of the pack on school reform, but we trail the field when it comes to education funding. If we don't address that disparity and do it quickly, the reforms that we have instituted won't make the positive impact that they could with adequate funding," said Senator Hobson.
"We have talented professionals in the classroom who are doing a great job with very limited resources. They give us a great bang for every education buck we allocate. If we can give them better tools and better compensation, we can make our public schools even stronger. That's why we want to earmark the bulk of future state growth revenue for our public schools," said Senator Williams.
The first revenue forecast for the fiscal year is traditionally made in late fall. In recent months, booming energy prices have caused revenue collections to exceed projections.