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Project Oklahoma: How are schools funded in Oklahoma?

Project Oklahoma: How are schools funded in Oklahoma?

This story is part of a joint FOX 25/KTUL long-term investigation into the state of Oklahoma’s education system. Project Oklahoma aims to answer the questions about why Oklahoma’s educational system is in the state it is and what is keeping the state from raising educational outcomes.

Education receives just over half of the amount of the money appropriated by the state legislature, but how does that money get from the one giant bank account to each individual school?

Oklahoma's system for distributing cash is complicated, but there are efforts to simplify the formula.

There is approximately $1.8 billion allocated for the Oklahoma public school funding formula. To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent to the gross domestic product of a small country like Belize.

However, getting money from the Capitol to the classroom is not a simple step.

“It can get very complicated,” explained Matt Holder, the Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Federal Programs for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Holder is working with lawmakers who are attempting to simplify the state’s funding formula in an effort to make it more transparent.

“Whatever changes you make [to the funding formula] there is typically a winner and a loser so you are going to have half the schools that 'win' that gain money from the tweak and you're going to have about half the schools that lose money,” Holder said.

Oklahoma's funding formula has had some minor tweaks over the years but is largely unchanged since the 1980s. However, other states have praised the formula’s outcomes as being one of the fairest distributions of school funding in the country.

Each school reports how many students attend, but individual students can be weighted differently. Those weights can mean more money for the district.

The different weights for individual students come from research showing it costs more to educate students in different stages of life. There are increased weights for younger students in elementary school as well as added weight for students who have special needs related to a disability, or for those who are gifted and talented. There is also a weight added if a student comes from a lower socioeconomic status.

Each weight is grounded in research explained Holder. “It costs more to educate a student that comes from poverty just typically because they are not as prepared as a typical middle-class family where parents are reading to them from birth till they get them to school.”

To put the weights into a real-life situation, imagine a first grader who has a learning disability and is economically disadvantaged. That fictional student is just one person, but the school will receive funding for two students because the district will have to spend as much money to education that student with special needs as it would spend on two students who do not have those same needs.

However, that is the easy part to understand. There are a total of three levels to determine a school’s funding.

The formula looks at local and county school taxes and deducts that from state funding. That means the more a city or county contributes to schools, the less it gets from the state.

There is also a transportation cost element that adds to the final amount a school district is given.

However, changing the formula will not be the solution to all the state’s funding issues.

“There is one pot of money,” Holder explained, “Even tweaks or changes to the formula doesn't change the size of the pot of the money.”

One thing that could change pot of money is the new education budget. It includes money for new textbooks and adds money to the funding formula. However, current estimates indicate there is only $17 million that will go to the school funding formula.

That $17 million amounts to only about $24 per student when you look at just what is available for the funding formula.

And some schools may not see any additional money from the state. That is because the funding formula has not kept up with the rapid rate of student growth in Oklahoma.

In the past ten years, Oklahoma has seen an increase of more than 50,000 students in public schools. That increase is more than the current population of the state’s largest school district, Oklahoma City which has just over 45,000 students. In effect, Oklahoma has added the equivalent of a new major metropolitan area that is bigger than Oklahoma City or Tulsa but not provided funding for it.

Each time a district adds new students, it is potentially eligible for more funding. However, that money has to come from somewhere and that means another school will lose funding.

The task force studying the school funding formula started last year and its recommendations are due this December. However, given the political consequences, we’re told that Oklahomans should not expect major changes. The best anyone is hoping for is something that's easier for everyone to understand.

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