A bill signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt this week has legislators and educators concerned that rural schools could lose state funding and result in financial repercussions.
House Bill 2078 alters the state funding formula by basing per-pupil funding on the most recent enrollment data, whereas current law bases the initial allocation of dollars to school districts on the higher of the two previous years’ average daily student count.
When new law goes into effect in 2022, allocations will be based on only the previous year, and the mid-year adjustment – which was previously based on two years prior or the first nine weeks of a term – will now be factored into the previous year’s count. The bill was signed along with SB 783, which allows students to transfer to another district at any time, provided the school has space available. Secretary of Education Ryan Walter said the bills allow students to choose the schools that best fit their needs.
“These two bills will work seamlessly together to have an immediate impact on the way we educate Oklahoma’s students, and I commend our state leaders for getting this across the finish line,” he said.
However, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the measures marked one step forward and two steps back for public education.
“Children in rural Oklahoma deserve to have a high-quality education and HB 2078 potentially jeopardizes that,” she said. “This bill removes financial safeguards meant to protect all students from the impact of abrupt changes in the local economy.”
While the legislation might mean increased funding for several districts in the state, it will likely come at the cost of rural and urban schools. State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, himself a former educator, said the bill will lead to inequity.
“Right now, the rural schools in the state of Oklahoma are declining in population, because most of the small rural districts are getting older and a lot of the younger people are leaving and going to bigger areas for employment,” he said. “As a matter fact, all the school districts in my district, except for one, are being negatively affected by this law when it goes into affect in 2022.”
Keys Public School Superintendent Vol Woods said the laws that were already in place were there for a reason.
“What it allowed you to do, if you’re a declining school district and losing 10-20 kids a year, with $5,000-plus a kid, that’s kind of a bite,” he said. “It would give you time to adjust your expenses to fit your budget. School funding is so unpredictable, anyway. They’re making it even harder to figure out what your budget is going to be. And if you go into the red, it’s going to be bad, bad news.”
Some districts are supplied students through feeder schools, where the majority of students from one institution progress to one particular high school. However, for schools like Keys, it’s difficult to determine how many students they’ll have enroll next year.
“For schools like us that receive so many of our children from dependent schools, you never know how many students you’re going to have in the ninth grade,” said Woods. “You may be maxed out and you may have half the amount you had before. You just don’t know, because those kids can go into any high school in the state.”
Funding through the CARES Act and other dollars being pushed to schools by the federal government could help rural schools with declining enrollments hold off on some tough decisions. But those funds won’t always be available.
“We’re going to get less money next year, because they’re going to count our enrollment on this year’s numbers, when we’re [currently] being paid on previous years’ numbers,” said Woods. “So we’re going to lose some money. Thank the lord the federal government sent us a bunch of money, but that’s just a one-shot deal and it’s not going to be there every year.”
The change in formula funding will likely mean rural schools across the state will have to cut programs or lay off staff.
Although the legislation was opposed by both Republicans and Democrats, it received enough votes in the Senate to move on to the governor.
Pemberton said at least two senators flipped their “no” votes to “yes” votes, adding there was a big campaign by Stitt’s office and state leadership to ensure there were enough votes to pass it.
“We can always come back next year and put in legislation to change it back, but as long as the governor has his mind set, he’ll veto that,” said Pemberton. “So right now, we’ll have to regroup and see what we can do.”
Records show State Rep. Bob Ed Culver and Sen. Blake Cowboy Stephens opposed the bill.