49th Is Not OK? Then Try This

January 13, 2015

Jonathan Small

Perhaps you’ve heard the lament from folks in Oklahoma’s public school system that “49th is not OK” when it comes to per-pupil spending.

Now for starters let’s note that, according to Daniel Thatcher of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oklahoma actually ranks 29th when adjusted for comparable wages and pre-kindergarten spending.

Jennifer Doverspike—formerly an intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency with expertise in al-Qaida, now a Tulsa blogger and co-founder of Midtown Tulsa Moms—says “it’s laughable that the same people who lament that ‘49th in school spending is not OK’ aren’t noticing the pre-kindergarten parasite stretching the education budget even further.”

Nevertheless, why does it matter if Oklahoma is 49th or 29th or 9th?

The Census Bureau says that the District of Columbia, for example, spends a whopping $29,409 per pupil—yet D.C. has some of the worst schools in America.

There’s no necessary relationship between school spending and student performance in this country. “When you look at the statistics,” President Obama has acknowledged, “the fact is that our per-pupil spending has gone up during the last couple of decades even as results have gone down.”

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that 49th is not OK. What exactly can the public-school folks do to boost Oklahoma’s ranking?

They tried litigation; that didn’t work. They tried a ballot initiative; it was thrashed. Each year they continue to press for more government spending on education, but it never seems to satisfy them.

Well, what about tax hikes? Not likely. Indeed, with Oklahoma becoming an income-tax sandwich—Texas has none, and Kansas is phasing its out—it’s more likely that Oklahoma will continue to cut taxes. Early on Gov. Mary Fallin promised “the most significant tax cut in state history”—indeed, she said Oklahoma is charting a course “toward the gradual elimination of the state income tax.” (It hasn’t happened yet, but there’s no question the momentum favors tax cuts, not tax increases.)

The raise-per-pupil-spending crowd is running out of options. Given their insatiable appetite for money (Tahlequah Public Schools superintendent Lisa Presley has helpfully informed us that “there has never been enough revenue for public education, and there never will be”), I would suggest they have no choice but to turn their attention from the numerator to the denominator. School choice—vouchers, tax credits, and Arizona-style Education Savings Accounts—can offload pupils onto the private sector, thereby increasing per-pupil funding in the government’s schools. (And no, educators aren’t allowed to complain that they still have fixed costs when students leave—unless they’re also willing to tell lawmakers they don’t need any new money when enrollment increases.)

Or, here’s another proposal. Let’s radically increase per-pupil spending right now, with one small caveat: Oklahoma moves to a system of performance-based funding. Give schools massive per-pupil spending increases—but only for every student who can read.

After all, an official at the state Department of Education recently said that up to 98 percent of kids can learn to read when taught properly. Sylvia Brown, a former public school teacher and principal in Tulsa, once told me it’s closer to 100 percent.

49th in per-pupil spending may or may not be OK. But widespread school-produced illiteracy is most certainly not OK.