More than 30,000 teachers gathered to protest at the Oklahoma State Capitol this week, and while they are demanding that the state pass a bill that would provide an additional $150 million in education funding, some taxpayers are questioning why the teachers aren’t calling for the government to be held accountable for the way it is spending the money it already has.
While teachers march with signs that say “Fund Our Schools” and they share photos online of dilapidated textbooks that need to be replaced, they are calling on the state to solve their problems by increasing taxes. However, a study conducted by the 1889 Institute revealed that in 2014, only 48 percent of public school revenue came from the state.
The other 41 percent of revenue came from the district and 11 percent came from the federal government. Even if the state increased taxes and allocated more money for the education budget, the state’s more than 500 districts are responsible for determining the salaries of teachers and support staff as long as they are over a state minimum schedule.
Each of the districts is also fully equipped with a superintendent and administrative staff, raising concern among parents about how much school officials are being paid while the teachers who work directly with students receive a significantly lower salary.
Steve Dickson, an Oklahoma resident and political insider, told The Free Thought Project that he started studying the state’s budget for education when he heard teachers complaining about a lack of funds for school supplies.
“The teachers say they don’t have money for class supplies, but I have three kids in elementary school and I probably spend $150 for school supplies for each of them at the beginning of the year—two boxes of crayons, three boxes of Kleenex, Clorox wipes, reams and reams of paper,” Dickson said. “I’m sure the teachers are spending money too, but I don’t think they should have to. I don’t know where the money is going that the school districts are getting.”
Dickson said that when looking at the state’s education budget and the amount that is allocated for each student, he started questioning why the teachers were receiving such low salaries, yet the budget was already so large.
“We have a major corruption problem, and this is my biggest problem with the state government,” Dickson said. “I don’t think teachers get paid enough money and I don’t know anyone that does. If you’re paying $7,000 per student and you have 20 students in a class, that’s $140,000. If the teacher is getting paid $35,000, then where is the rest of the money going?”
Dickson said he is also worried about a number of financial scandals that have recently come to light, and how the state government plans to distribute funds in order to cover the costs of corruption within other state agencies.
In November 2017, the Oklahoma State Department of Health requested $30 million from the State Legislature and claimed that its 2,600 employees would not be paid if the request was not granted by the end of the month.
Interim Health Commissioner Preston Doerflinger said that the funding gap has accumulated over the last 6 years in which department officials regularly overspent on programs and covered it up by funneling money through internal systems.
“The budgets being presented to us were balanced budgets,” Doerflinger said. “At the end of the day, it is fund accounting, but we had monies being moved from various funds—in some cases, restricted funds—to be utilized for operations.”
Last week, a federal report revealed that the Oklahoma City Veterans Affairs Health Care System made $7 million in improper payments to the University of Oklahoma’s medical school in 2015 and 2016. The VA’s inspector general also found that several part-time doctors were being paid for times when there is no evidence that they were treating patients.
In another case, taxpayers in the state will be forced to pay $140 million in emergency funds after the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences were caught using an expired waiver to receive inflated reimbursements from the Medicare and Medicaid centers.
The waiver program expired in 2001, which means that fraud has been ongoing for the last 17 years. While Oklahoma doctors who treat Medicaid patients are usually reimbursed at around 86 percent, the doctors who treated Medicaid patients through the OU and OSU health sciences centers were being reimbursed at a rate of 140 percent.
The state government was also forced to appropriate an additional $10.1 million for the Education Lottery Trust Fund after it was revealed last year that lottery funds had been used to supplant education funding instead of enhancing it. The actual funds that were budgeted appear to have disappeared, and there is no ongoing public investigation to locate the money.
Despite the fact that each of the scandals listed above has received significant media attention, there are a number of officials who have not faced any charges for their involvement. Instead, the agencies have turned to the state and asked for more money to cover-up the problem, and Dickson told TFTP he believes that the same thing will happen if taxes are increased in the name of additional education funding.
“We’re paying a lot of money, but we’re not getting enough results for it,” Dickson said. “The teachers certainly aren’t getting paid enough, there’s too much administration, and then we’re raising taxes that I frankly think are going to get diverted to cover the losses from other mismanaged state agencies.”
In addition to money from taxes, the state of Oklahoma uses a variety of methods to fund public education. One of those methods is derived from the fees Oklahoma receives from its Class III Gaming compact with the Native American tribes in the state. In 2016 alone, the state of Oklahoma collected more than $132 million in tribal gaming exclusivity fees under the state-tribal gaming compact, according to an annual report.
Sonya Nevaquaya, a former tribal leader for the Comanche Tribe, told TFTP that while the tribes are forced to abide by strict rules and audits, the state government faces little accountability regarding how it spends the money it receives from the compact, which has totaled more than $1 billion since 2005.
“1.123 BILLION DOLLARS has been paid into the state of Oklahoma from all the tribes in Oklahoma that have had a Class III Gaming Compact with the State since 2005,” Nevaquaya said. “This money is supposed to be for education—we the tribes get audited every single year to ensure the State is receiving every cent for Class III gaming if there are findings the state will fine the tribe. My question is, where has all of this money gone and who is auditing the state of Oklahoma for this Gaming Compact money from the tribes?”
Nevaquaya took to Facebook to share her grievances in a status that received more than 13,000 shares in two days. She said her goal was to inspire teachers to start demanding the state government face standards similar to the ones it requires from each of the tribes.
“Teachers, ask the governor, ‘where did this 1.123 BILLION dollars go to?” Nevaquaya said. “The Compact expires in 2020—this is where tribal leadership should come together to negotiate a stronger Compact that can allocate money to all school districts and communities for education funding. We also need to have an audit performed on that State Compact gaming money to ensure the tribes and school communities the revenue from the tribal casinos Class III Games given to the state is accounted for by an actual paper trail.”
At the end the day, it is no secret that public school teachers in Oklahoma deserve a higher salary and access to updated textbooks and school supplies. But the long list of scandals that have been revealed in recent months involving the state’s agencies and the glaring lack of accountability among the officials who were involved serve as a reminder that simply increasing taxes will not solve the problems that are plaguing public education in the state of Oklahoma.