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At what price?



What does it say about a state when it spends far more money on a per-person basis housing its prisoners than it does educating its children?

Sadly, that has been the case in Oklahoma for years, and the message from many previous and current state leaders is simple and stark: Oklahoma is more interested in paying for punishment than it is in paying for enlightenment.  

This is not a wise or sustainable long-term strategy, and the state of the 2011 fiscal budget, which began in July, along with cuts in education this fiscal year, just makes the problem worse. Oklahoma City Public Schools, for example, has announced it will eliminate 118 teaching positions because of a 9 percent cut in funding over last year. Tulsa Public Schools announced it could eliminate 286 positions.

In the face of this bad news, some state leaders have even indicated education should be cut more, although the standard line from most apologetic leaders is this: It could have been worse.

Overall, education is taking less of a hit than some state agencies, but there were compelling reasons to avoid cutting education at all or even increasing funding during these tough economic times.

For years, Oklahoma has had low per-pupil expenditure rates compared to other states, often ranking among the bottom 10. The state ranked 49th in the nation in per-student expenditure as of 2008, according to a recent National Center for Education Statistics report.  

"We rank dead last in our region in what we invest in the schooling of children and nearly dead last in the country," State Superintendent Sandy Garrett said in a press release about the report.
Oklahoma's low funding for education demands the state increase funding each year to play catch-up and ensure schools have equipment and textbooks.

After years of inadequate education funding, Oklahoma has become known as an anti-education state throughout the nation. Oklahoma is not the only state with this reputation, but it still hurts its image. It directly affects economic development and job creation. Does anyone really think the world will become less technologically advanced? The state needs to graduate students who can go onto college and then work jobs that require highly developed skills. It can't get there with teacher layoffs, which could extend into 2012 and beyond.

Staff members at some state agencies might argue the people they serve are just as important as the students public schools serve, and at any specific time that may well be true. The addict needs treatment. Impoverished people need health care. The hungry need food. But schools remain the foundational key to developing people who lead healthy lives and learn how to contribute to their community. A student who must go two or three years in crowded classrooms without that outstanding science or math teacher could miss something crucial she may never get back.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections' website, the average annual cost to house a state offender is $16,539. The per-pupil expenditure rate in Oklahoma was around $7,798, according to information on the website of the Oklahoma State Department of Education. There is a price to pay for this disparity.

Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the Okie Funk blog.

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