Jonathan Small | August 14, 2023

Despite lavish spending, TPS performance goes from bad to worse

Jonathan Small

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters recently indicated Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) could face a downgrade in its state accreditation status. That would mark the second year in a row the district has had an accreditation downgrade.

But the fact that Tulsa held the state’s top accreditation rating just a few years ago suggests the system is, if anything, too lenient. Tulsa’s academic outcomes have long been abhorrent, and district leadership found a way to make things even worse by ending in-person instruction for more than a year during COVID.

In the pre-COVID 2018-2019 school year, an astounding 82% of Tulsa students tested below grade level on state tests. But the district’s prolonged school closure caused results to plummet even further. By the 2020-2021 school year, 89% of students were below grade level with 64% well below grade level.

Tulsa’s outcomes were abysmal compared not only to other Oklahoma schools, but schools across the nation.

According to the Education Recovery Scorecard, which tracks district-level learning losses at schools across the nation, the average math score fell by 1.3 grade levels for Tulsa students between 2019 and 2022, while reading scores showed Tulsa students lost 1.34 grade levels in reading.

For comparison, students in Detroit, Michigan, lost a little less than one grade level of learning in math and 1.03 years in reading. Detroit schools are not known for academic excellence, yet students there lost less ground than their Tulsa counterparts.

At the Window Rock Unified District in Arizona, located on the Navajo Nation reservation, students lost 0.64 grades in math learning from 2019 to 2022 and reading scores indicated Window Rock students declined just 0.03 grade levels in reading ability.

Don’t misunderstand: The academic outcomes in the Detroit and Window Rock districts are not the ideal. But both districts did a better job preventing learning loss during COVID than did Tulsa. In Tulsa, the district started with bad academic outcomes and made them much worse due to their COVID response.

Tulsa’s poor results aren’t due to a lack of funding. According to state financial records, Tulsa had $16,979 per student in 2021, the most recent year available. That’s more than tuition at most private schools in Oklahoma.

In recent comments, Walters referenced “ongoing, significant, and severe issues” in Tulsa schools, noting the district has “been one of the worst-performing schools in the state of Oklahoma.” Among other things, he noted financial concerns in the district, including a recent embezzlement scandal.

Those issues do warrant attention from state officials. But so do the longstanding, extremely poor outcomes generated by Tulsa schools that suggest the accreditation system needs to be strengthened. After all, as a simple matter of civic pride, most Oklahoma communities should be offended that their local schools have shared the same accreditation status as Tulsa for many years.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

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