Oklahoma Education Risks Falling Off Fiscal Cliff
While Congress is debating how to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff education officials in Oklahoma are biting their nails.
Part of the deal made by Congress last year in dealing with the debt ceiling was to enact sequestration which would cut federal spending on education to states by more than 8%.
It’s estimated Oklahoma schools could lose more than $51 million for the next fiscal year affecting many disadvantaged kids.
It’s a little before two in the afternoon as students in Guthrie Junior High trade out books in their lockers and head to their next class.
The small Logan County school district could lose about $127,000 of their $23 million budget.
It may not sound like a lot, but that money is earmarked to help special needs and low income students through programs including Title One, special education and Head Start.
Guthrie Superintendent Mike Simpson says it’s unclear exactly how the cuts will work, but it will likely impact teachers and other essential staff members.
“They’re task everyday is designed to help that particular student achieve and work toward becoming more ingrained in regular society and those are the people who make a difference with those students.”
Title One funds help low income students.
65% of Guthrie students fall into that category.
In Oklahoma City, it’s 92%.
Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer expects Title One funding alone to see a cut of $2 to $4 million in his district.
Springer says on the plus side, Oklahoma City has been fiscally conservative with its money and utilized MAPS for Kids and stimulus funds to weather massive cuts.
“Oklahoma City has over the last two or three years really worked to make sure that the budget of this school district is planned and solvent and we’re looking at the horizon about a year and a half out so we’re not surprised by this issue.”
Still, Springer is urging lawmakers to not head over the cliff because it affects all students.
Take special education, Oklahoma could see a loss of 200 teaching positions.
Mid-Del schools Special Ed teacher Lori Burris says that means larger class sizes for those with disabilities.
“Those kids which are our highest needs kids are going to lose those teachers and lose those resources that can help them become citizens that are going to be productive when they leave high school.”
And the list of special programs that will see cuts under sequestration continues.
Oklahoma hallmarks itself on early education, but with the cuts to Head Start, Oklahoma Education Association President, Linda Hampton says more children are at risk before they even start Kindergarten.
“It gives them a step up to be ready. It levels that playing field so that they’re all ready to go to school, ready to learn. And then you cut that program. It’s not right. It’s not fair for the youngest school age children that don’t have a voice in this.”
So, if these cuts take place, how can Oklahoma fill the gap?
Could it be done with state dollars?
State Superintendent Janet Barresi says it’s a complicated funding mechanism and even if the state dollars were available, it would create yet another problem.
“When you have a federal program, you may not substitute state dollars that the federal dollars were immediately being spent without disqualifying that program forever. There’s a supplement versus supplant issue.”
In other words, if a teacher or program currently gets federal money and then is switched to state funds, schools can’t go back to later use federal dollars even if the money returns.
But, disadvantaged kids need education which means schools may have to use state money to fill the federal funding gap.
And, that according to Doctor Simpson for Guthrie schools means all the kids in his district would feel the impact.
“If we have to take more funds from state sources that we were getting from federal to serve those students there’s no way we can say it’s not affecting all students.”
Of course whether there’s any extra money from the state will be up to lawmakers in the 2013 legislative session.
On the plus side, any cuts to federal education funding wouldn’t go into effect until July which might give Congress a little extra time to deal with the issue.