LAST week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took his education agenda to a Senate subcommittee. He’s asking for an eye-popping $3 billion-plus increase in discretionary spending next fiscal year.
“The big takeaway message here is that education is more than a set of numbers on the ledger line. Education is not just an expense — it’s an investment,” Duncan said. “In fact, it is one of the most critical investments in the future that we, as a nation, can make. America cannot win the race for the future without investing in education — it’s that simple.”
Whether you agree with the federal investment and involvement in education — and many don’t — Duncan’s assessment is dead on. Education is an investment. For state budgets, it is arguably the most important investment. That’s reflected in Oklahoma and other states where education makes up the largest piece of the budget pie.
But the question that remains at the federal level and for states is largely the same: How much is enough? Or even more specifically: How much will it cost to produce the educated workforce that parents, business owners, communities and policymakers want?
As we’ve noted before, the latter is a question that’s been lost for too many years in Oklahoma amid widespread education reforms and simultaneous power struggles. Debates over testing requirements, letter grades for schools and districts, and teacher and administrator evaluation systems haven’t yielded an answer. Rather, they’ve only created more financial questions.
It’s no secret the reforms come at a cost. Whether the issue is as clear cut as how much it costs to pay for required testing or the less clear matter of what is the cost of holding back third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level, no one really seems to know.
State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, a Republican, requested a $289 million increase for the state Education Department’s FY 2014 budget. The Legislature doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite for that sort of increase. While education should be an apolitical issue, it isn’t. The wide gap between what Barresi is asking and what she is likely to get is an interesting political dilemma given the across-the-board Republican leadership.
Some discussion has taken place about whether the state’s school funding formula needs tweaking. But without an informed discussion, any changes would amount to little more than lip service toward addressing an issue without a solid solution.
State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, is no stranger to challenging the status quo in public education. And whether one agrees with his politics, Nelson is pushing for an answer to the “how much?” question beyond platitudes. Here’s hoping others will jump on that bandwagon.
The quick answer to calls for more money for education is that more money is no guarantee. That’s absolutely true. The state already spends more than $2 billion on common education, and few would say they are satisfied with the resulting student achievement.
Oklahoma is overdue for a real discussion about the right combination of reforms and the appropriate investment to give students and teachers affected by the reforms the best chance at success. Putting off the discussion only guarantees that the politics of education will continue to dominate a discussion that needs a serious dose of reality.
Oklahoma is overdue for a real discussion about the right combination of reforms and the appropriate investment to give students and teachers affected by the reforms the best chance at success.