Recent news reports say that Oklahoma had the nation's largest percentage cuts to per-pupil spending since 2008. Here are five observations:
We don't know really how much money the government spends on education. “Nobody knows, not even the principal,” scholars Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli write. “That's how opaque our system is.” The National Education Association says per-pupil spending in Oklahoma is $8,285. The Census Bureau says it's $8,863. Other federal and Oklahoma government agencies give different numbers.
“Because of the various funding streams that feed the system,” says Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute, “discovering exactly how much taxpayers spend per student is more like deciphering a riddle than reading a balance sheet.”
“Public school finances make Enron look like a model of transparency,” says University of Arkansas education professor Robert Maranto. “Under our highly complex systems of school finance and resource allocations, policymakers, educators and taxpayers simply do not know what if any strategy drives particular spending decisions, or how costs and outcomes compare across programs. In public education we are all, quite literally, flying blind.”
Is eight grand not enough? Should we double it? Triple it? The Census Bureau says the District of Columbia spends $29,409 per pupil — yet D.C. has some of the worst schools in America.
More spending doesn't help. As President Obama remarked in 2010, “When you look at the statistics, the fact is that our per-pupil spending has gone up during the last couple of decades even as results have gone down.”
There are many reasons for this. Here's one. Economist Benjamin Scafidi points out that between 1992 and 2009, the percentage increase in Oklahoma administrators and other nonteaching staff was nearly three times greater than the increase in students. Today Oklahoma has nearly as many nonteachers as teachers.
Oklahomans know that more spending won't help. SoonerPoll discovered in 2010 that 64 percent of Oklahomans disagree with this statement: “If more money is spent on public schools in my district, students will learn more.” Only 32 percent agree. In 2011, SoonerPoll found that fewer than one in four Oklahomans think taxpayers are getting a good return on their per-pupil investment.
Finally, we're dealing with a system that constitutional lawyer Clint Bolick describes as a “hidebound, bureaucratic, expensive, top-down, one-size-fits-all, command-and-control, inefficient, reform-resistant, administratively bloated, special-interest-manipulated, obsolete, impersonal bricks-and-mortar system that represents the most disastrous failure of central planning west of Communist China and south of the United States Postal Service.” Why would we give it more money?
Here's a better idea: vouchers, tax credits and Arizona-style education savings accounts. Education scholar Greg Forster reports that “23 empirical studies have examined school choice's impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact.”
Without parental choice, we're destined for (gulp) more of the same. “There has never been enough revenue for public education,” Tahlequah Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Presley says, “and there never will be.”
Dutcher is vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).