Lawmakers say Hofmeister is all wrong on textbook funding

State lawmakers were surprised when education officials  claimed funds had been cut for textbooks when in reality the funds had simply been shifted to give districts flexibility.

State School Superintendent Joy Hofmeister in a press release claimed that “the state Legislature’s elimination of all funds designated for school textbooks has forced the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) to recommend a one-year delay of textbook selection. Although $33 million was appropriated for textbooks in Fiscal Year 2016, legislators zeroed out the line item for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.”

The state has a projected $1.3 billion budget shortfall. Public education escaped without any significant cuts while higher education and most other state agencies will see significant decreases in the next fiscal year.

“The lack of appropriated dollars for textbooks is posing serious challenges for districts across Oklahoma,” said Hofmeister. “At a time when educators are implementing new, stronger standards for English language arts and mathematics, districts will be scrambling to raise funds to replace workbooks and other consumable materials for early reading students. In the meantime, children will continue to be saddled with outdated and tattered school books held together by duct tape.”

Hofmeister noted that school districts have little recourse but to delay the purchase of textbooks for reading and math.

“As a result of the funds being cut this year, we are seeing a number of textbook publishers pulling out of Oklahoma,” she said.

Under Oklahoma statute, the State Textbook Committee may delay by two years the textbook-adoption process. Every six years, the committee adopts textbooks for specific class subjects.

The 13-member committee, which is appointed by the governor, is expected to consider the recommendation at a special meeting later this month.

Oklahoma Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman and Senate Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Clark Jolley said they were surprised by comments from  Hofmeister in her news release regarding school textbook funding.

“The Legislature put $33 million dollars previously line itemed for textbooks into the state-aid funding formula so schools can make spending decisions at the local level based on their own unique needs,” said Hickman, R-Fairview. “Education leaders, including Superintendent Hofmeister, made it clear to us this session that schools wanted more money directed through the funding formula so schools will have more discretion and flexibility. The funds didn’t go away. Schools are still receiving the money that would have been line itemed for textbooks, but now they have greater discretion to use those dollars for more pressing needs at the local level or to buy new textbooks.”

Jolley, R-Edmond, said the funding shift shows the Legislature is trying to meet the needs of the schools as they have been stated for years.

“Our schools have been crying out for more money to be placed in the formula for several years in a row,” Jolley said. “When I asked the leadership of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association if it would be more important for these funds to be in textbooks or the formula, I was told the formula gave the greatest flexibility to districts. I’m surprised about the Superintendent’s release because we specifically discussed the shifting of funding from the textbook area to the formula and was told how important it was to place those funds in the funding formula, where districts have the most flexibility on how they be used.”

In addition to sending previously earmarked textbook dollars to local schools to be spent in the area of greatest need, Hickman pointed to legislation which was also passed this session to relieve schools from the mandates associated with textbook spending.

“The Legislature passed Senate Bill 933, a measure that frees schools from mandated spending on textbooks, so if a school’s textbooks are adequate, they can use those dollars for other areas of need,” said Hickman. “In a year when lawmakers had $1.3 billion less to build a budget, we diligently sought and found ways to hold common education’s budget flat when other agencies were receiving large cuts which Superintendent Hofmeister recently praised as a ‘Herculean effort’. ”

Protecting school funding during this historic oil bust and getting as many dollars as possible directly into classrooms was one of the top priorities for Republican budget leaders in the Senate and House, Jolley said.

“The Legislature forced numerous other state agencies to absorb millions of dollars in cuts so common education would not have to see any further reductions past those made in the FY’16 budget year,” Jolley said. “By shifting these resources within the common education budget, we are trying to make sure that the classrooms get more direct funding.”