Mary Fallin

Oklahoma Democratic gubernatorial candidate's education plan doesn't add up

July 23, 2014
The Oklahoman

POLITICS inevitably generates its share of flimflam, but campaign season puts it on steroids. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman’s “education plan” is the latest example.

According to some analyses, Oklahoma funding for schools declined roughly $200 million between the 2008 and 2014 budget years, due to the national recession. Those analyses are misleading because they apparently don’t account for all sources of school funding. While education funding in the state budget drafted by lawmakers has fallen, schools also get hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarked money provided outside the appropriations process. Also, the strong growth of local tax receipts, which are a major funding source for Oklahoma schools, is often ignored.

Still, the $200 million cut has become a popular talking point among Democrats and teachers unions. So it’s not surprising Dorman would try to make political hay out of it. But here’s the problem: Dorman’s solution to a $200 million decline is a $35 million increase.

Dorman recently announced that he wants at least $35 million in state franchise tax collections earmarked for public schools. This is the same funding source Dorman earlier targeted to pay for school storm shelters. Currently, franchise tax collections go into the general revenue fund. But since K-12 schools already get the largest portion of general revenue money in the state budget, it could be argued a good share of the state’s franchise tax money is already going to public schools.

Dorman’s plan restores funding at a slower pace than what Gov. Mary Fallin has provided. Over the past two years, Fallin has signed budgets providing $150 million in new funding to schools. Dorman’s plan would provide just $70 million over a two-year period. If he plans to run as an advocate of increased school funding, he’ll have to do better than this. Vowing to bump funding at less than half the rate of your opponent seems a weak selling point.

That’s not the only questionable component of the Democrat’s proposal. Dorman said his plan would “restore local control so communities will have more say in what they want their schools to provide within broad guidelines.” Yet Dorman also pledged that funds tapped from the franchise tax wouldn’t go to salaries, administrative costs or sports equipment. Instead, the money would cover such things such as teaching materials, textbooks, curriculum support materials, laboratory equipment, supplies and computer technology.

In short, even as he vowed to increase local control, Dorman simultaneously vowed to impose state mandates that control the use of the money. Most people will likely agree that new funding shouldn’t provide pay increases to administrators already earning six-figure incomes. But you can’t boost local control and micromanage local decisions at the same time.

And then there’s the revisionist history embedded in Dorman’s critique. He said Fallin had cut school funding “in contrast to other states that have chosen to invest in education.” That’s a stretch. A report by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 35 states provided less per-pupil funding in the 2014 budget year than in 2008, including several in which Democrats rule the political roost.

Severe national recessions have a significant impact on government funding. That Dorman feels the need to pretend otherwise, while touting a hazily constructed funding plan, says much about the state of his campaign.

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