Budget & Tax, Education

A Textbook Case of Misplaced Priorities

September 19, 2014

Brandon Dutcher

In a recent article discussing a potential income-tax cut in Oklahoma, The Oklahoman reported that state Rep. James Lockhart (D-Heavener), “noting his daughter’s school couldn’t afford to replace 10-year-old, falling-apart textbooks,” is very much opposed to the income-tax reduction. The newspaper quoted Rep. Lockhart as saying, “We can’t even buy textbooks in our schools.”

To which John Q. Taxpayer has every right to respond: “Seriously?”

One can’t help but recall the federal government shutdown last year, when President Obama selectively closed some national monuments. Sorry, veterans, we have to lock you out of the World War II memorial—the federal government doesn’t have two nickels to rub together.

It’s not just Heavener—I’ve heard the can’t-afford-textbooks argument from others, too—but let’s look at Heavener as an example.

According to the state Department of Education, the Heavener school district spends $10,193.54 per student (based on average daily attendance). In other words, school officials in Heavener are spending $10,193.54 per student on things that are more important to them than textbooks.

I’m not a school board member in Heavener, so I don’t know what the district’s priorities are. But if textbooks are indeed important, it seems to me that it’s time for the district to re-examine its spending priorities.

Have school officials taken a close look at the athletic budget, for example?

Have they considered merging with a nearby district?

Have they considered putting a textbook allocation into their next bond election (as other Oklahoma districts have done)?

Have they privatized all non-teaching personnel? As education researcher Greg Forster has noted in these pages, “There’s absolutely no reason for any sector of government to directly employ bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, or any of the rest of this category. The whole enchilada needs to be privatized posthaste. You wouldn’t just eliminate unnecessary positions that are there due to featherbedding, although that’s considerable. More important, though, you’d be able to pay the market rate for the positions you kept, instead of hyperinflated civil-service salaries and benefits (think pensions). And you’d be able to fire people if they didn’t deliver good services.”

And while we’re on the subject of not delivering good services, it’s worth noting the Global Report Card results showing that, when compared to 25 developed countries, Heavener students score at the 23rd percentile in math. In other words, the average Heavener student performs more poorly than 77 percent of students in the typical developed country. Yet despite this poor performance, apparently every administrator and every teacher continues to draw a paycheck. Has there been any discussion of renegotiating the contracts of underperforming educators and redirecting some of the money to new textbooks?

These are just a few big-picture suggestions; it’s up to the school board and school superintendent to roll up their sleeves and go over the budget line by line.

Granted, government monopolies are not known for their budgetary agility, but if textbooks truly are a priority, then school officials—with $10,193.54 per student at their disposal—need to find a way to buy textbooks. Yes, it may present a management challenge, but this is the sort of problem the Heavener superintendent is paid $98,022 annually to solve.