Editor’s note: State House District 52 Rep. Charles Ortega (R-Altus) was provided an opportunity to respond.
After a formal endorsement of the FY 2017 state budget soon after its passage by the state legislature, State Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister has done a 180 degree. In a recent press release she stated that she would not have endorsed the education budget had she had any idea lawmakers were going to eliminate $33 million in funding for textbooks and workbooks plus other education cuts.
Superintendent Hofmeister said that the cuts in education funding are “posing serious challenges for school districts across Oklahoma,” especially at a time when new, stronger standards for English language arts and mathematics are being implemented. Oklahoma teachers and students will be forced to work with “outdated and tattered school books held together by duct tape.” Superintendent Hofmeister implied that the legislators misunderstand how the complicated school funding formula works. She said, “You have to have devoted funds for textbooks; that is why it has always been its own line item.”
Oklahoma schools must not only cope with the $33 million cut to the textbook and workbook fund but with an additional $38.2 million which was cut from the activity fund, a fund that supports early childhood programs, remediation and alternative education, among others. While the legislative leaders claim they have maintained level aid for schools, the fact is, very important sources of state funding for schools have been cut. Superintendent Hofmeister indicated her department could have clarified these issues had she been allowed to participate fully in the education budget process.
While common education loses $71.2 million in this now discredited “flat budget,” the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology has lost $2 million. This evisceration of the education budget was approved as the legislature gave its Legislative Service Bureau a 184 percent increase to the tune of $9 million. This increase, we have been told by legislative leaders, is needed so the legislature can “meet its payroll.”
According to State Department of Education data, Oklahoma continues to lead the nation for the largest cuts to general school funding since the start of the recent recession. As important as the education budget is to the future we leave to our children and grandchildren, it is also vitally important to the stability of our many military installations, especially Altus Air Force Base. Over the years I have repeatedly heard wing commanders and vice commanders make the point that the military has a moral obligation to their troops to insure their dependents have access to free quality public education. Rest assured that this budget is being carefully scrutinized by the brass at the Pentagon, and at some point they will not be happy with the draconian cuts.
As early as December 2015, certain members of the state legislature realized a budget crisis was imminent, at which time a great deal of finger-pointing occurred in an effort to cast blame. There was and continues to be plenty of blame to go around. However, as a member of the Altus Board of Education I contend it is now time to quit finger-pointing, stop being disingenuous and be truthful with the citizens of Oklahoma about the serious negative impact the supposedly “flat education budget” will have on our schools. State Auditor Gary Jones has described the state budget as “smoke and mirrors.” The education budget, which cuts the state’s investment in science, technology and other educational efforts to build an economy of the future, reflects the priorities of our elected officials. Those priorities are dangerously out of kilter.
John N. Thomas