When the oil boom went bust, Oklahoma protected drillers and squeezed schools
By Luc Cohen and Joshua Schneyer, Reuters Investigates
NEWCASTLE, Oklahoma – After intense lobbying, Oklahoma’s oilmen scored a victory two years ago. State lawmakers voted to keep in place some of the lowest taxes on oil and gas production in the United States – a break worth $470 million in fiscal year 2015 alone.
The state’s schools haven’t been so fortunate. In Newcastle, 23 miles from the capital of Oklahoma City, John Cerny recently learned that the school attended by his five-year-old granddaughter, Adelynn, will open just four days a week next year. The Bridge Creek school district will slash spending because of a projected $1.3 billion state budget shortfall next year.
Beth Lawton teaches first grade at Broadmoore Elementary in Moore, a city of 59,000 bordering the capital. In April, she and several colleagues were told their contracts won’t be renewed because of funding cuts. Broadmoore’s class sizes are expected to rise next year as a result.
“I think our lawmakers have failed us, and I don’t understand how little they value education,” Lawton said.
Oklahoma’s school-funding crisis is part of the pain inflicted by falling oil prices on energy-rich states across America that rely on natural-resources taxes to pay their governments’ bills. But the crisis in Oklahoma is especially dire, exacerbated by a legacy of large tax breaks bestowed upon oil companies.