Two education measures finalized this week mark a win for those who subscribe to the philosophy that public tax dollars should follow students to the school of their choice. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday signed into law bills to alter the school funding formula and expand students’ ability to transfer between schools. 

Supporters of the funding measure, House Bill 2078, say it will more closely align school funding with enrollment trends. And the transfer measure, Senate Bill 783, allows students to more easily and frequently move to a school that better meets their needs.

Those against the initiatives say they will destabilize enrollment and school budgets. 

In presenting the funding formula bill, Sen. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole, characterized it as a minor change. But after Stitt signed the measure, his administration promoted it and the transfer bill as “the most transformative education reform legislation in Oklahoma history.”

The funding measure attracted more opposition than the transfer bill. Speaking out publicly against the funding bill were school leaders and finance officers, parents, education advocacy groups, public school professional organizations, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. 

After both bills passed, Hofmeister said the move marked “one step forward and two steps back for public education,” with the transfer bill holding real promise for students and families but the funding measure compromising any gains made. 

“This bill removes financial safeguards meant to protect all students from the abrupt changes in the local economy. Kids will lose when schools are forced to make sudden cuts in essential services and opportunities which provide access to a well-rounded education,” Hofmeister said. 

Starting in July 2022, the measure will base state aid funding on the current year or previous year’s student count, eliminating a provision allowing districts to use two years prior. It also temporarily eliminates the cap on funds districts can carry over from year to year. 

Taylor said with Oklahoma schools set to receive a total of $1.5 billion in the latest round of COVID-19 federal relief funds, removing the carryover cap allows them to set aside some of that money for the future.

The stimulus relief aid is provided by the U.S. government to address expenses related to COVID-19 and student learning loss as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. The funds are flexible but must be spent by the end of 2024.

The two-year lookback provision was intended to smooth out funding for districts that experience an enrollment decline – particularly in a year like this one, when many parents moved to virtual charter schools or homeschooled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The measure doesn’t add any new money for schools. Instead, it shifts millions of dollars, mostly benefitting suburban schools to the detriment of urban and rural schools. Had the provision been in place this year, 188 districts would have lost millions. For example, Oklahoma City Public Schools’ state aid would have been reduced by more than $7 million. Smaller districts would face declining aid too, like Fort Towson, which would have received $445,000 less.   

The school system that gained the most under the projected scenario was Epic Charter Schools, which experienced an influx of students this year and reported 60,000 students across the state. 

Passage of the initiative represents another victory for those who subscribe to the philosophy that education funding should “follow the student.” The philosophy is common among those that support private school vouchers, charter schools, and other school choice initiatives.  

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, supports the philosophy and debated in favor of House Bill 2078. 

“Do you philosophically believe the money should follow the student more closely? Or do you believe, and I happen to disagree with it, but do you believe the cushion is good for planning purposes?” he asked, adding that any insinuation that those in favor of the bill hate public education is a false narrative. 

“All of this money we’re talking about stays in public education. It just more closely follows the student.”

The Legislature’s constitutional duty is to “establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the state may be educated.”

Lawmakers Wednesday questioned Taylor, who ran the funding bill in the Senate, about the lack of stakeholder support. 

“No one in public education wants this bill,” said Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, a career teacher.  

“I don’t know that you can say no one wants this,” Taylor replied. “I know teachers who say privately they don’t have a problem with this.” 

He said the idea was hatched in a working group of a handful of lawmakers at the Capitol last summer. COVID-19 cut short the 2020 legislative session. Public school enrollment declined in 2020 for the first time in decades.

Taylor, echoing previous comments by Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, asserted that many parents will return to traditional schools in the fall — before the funding formula changes take effect, giving schools a new high year. But he offered no data to back that up. 

“As the pandemic subsides and more people are vaccinated, I feel more parents will send students back in person,” he said, adding that the assumption is based on what he’s heard from parents.   

Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, described the legislation as a “tug of war,” with parents and education supporters on one end, and a handful of wealthy and well-connected people on the other.  

“Whoever has the most power on their end of the rope wins. And that’s what we’re seeing today. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always lead to the best policy. When you have winners and losers, the losers are often left exploited, they are often left demoralized, disenfranchised, marginalized. And that’s why it’s not a good way to make decisions.” 

House Bill 2078 passed the Senate 27 to 19; Senate Bill 783 passed the House, 68 to 19. Stitt signed both in a ceremony at the Capitol on Wednesday.

“This is a monumental day for education reform in Oklahoma,” he said in a statement. “Education is not one-size-fits-all, and these bills allow parents and students to have the freedom to attend the best public school for them regardless of their ZIP code. Additionally, modernizing the funding formula ensures funding follows the student, not the school.” 

Jena Nelson, a Deer Creek teacher named Oklahoma’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, said the united front of school and parent advocacy groups and the superintendent of public instruction all opposing the funding bill should have been a clear sign that the reforms are not in the best interest of students. 

“We have had the most tumultuous year, and we are trying to do our very best in a global pandemic, and then to add these bills, it feels like insult to injury,” she said. 

Another major shift to the way schools in Oklahoma are funded occurred last week after the state Board of Education voted 4-3 to allow charter schools access to several new local and state tax revenue streams in settling a lawsuit. Legal challenges to the decision are expected. 

The first challenge was filed Wednesday by Oklahoma City Public Schools. The district’s attorney asked a judge to temporarily stop the implementation of the board’s action so the district can object to it in court. 

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