Jonathan Small | October 20, 2021

Testing results show need to fund students, not systems

Jonathan Small

There’s an old episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart’s teacher hands out state testing forms and informs her students, “Remember, class, the worse you do on this standardized test the more funding the school gets, so don’t knock yourselves out.”

The reason that joke had teeth was because it was based in reality, as the downward trajectory of academic achievement in Oklahoma public schools demonstrates. When you fund systems instead of students, the benefit never goes to the students.

State tests, administered last spring for the first time in Oklahoma since 2019, showed that academic achievement plunged during the COVID shutdowns that went statewide in spring 2020 and continued in many districts the following school year.

Previously, only about one-third of students performed at grade level in key subjects. Today, things are even worse.

Less than one-in-four Oklahoma students statewide performed at grade level or better in English Language Arts in spring 2021. Just 22 percent were at grade level in math and less than 30 percent were at grade level in science.

Grade-specific results were worse in some instances. For example, just 14 percent of eighth graders performed at grade level in math.

The decline among third-grade students was especially troubling. In 2019, state tests found 39 percent of third-grade students were at grade level in English language arts. Now, just 25 percent are at grade level.

Those students were in the second grade during the COVID shutdown of spring 2020 and are now in the fourth grade, and their prospects are bleak. Children who don’t learn to read fall further and further behind as they progress through school.

This is a failure of public schools that have little financial incentive to do better. You may recall that during the 2020 COVID shutdown many private schools found ways to continue teaching. In contrast, many public schools threw in the towel and stopped teaching new content or grading assignments.

The difference in approach is easy to explain: Private schools go broke when parents take their children elsewhere. There’s no comparable financial consequence for public schools.

Contrary to status-quo defenders, the problem isn’t money. Public schools have record state appropriations and received a flood of federal bailout money. The head of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association recently admitted Oklahoma teacher pay increased by 20 percent over the last five years, more than any neighboring state.

If we want academic outcomes to improve, policymakers must let state funds follow a child to any school a parent may choose, public or private. That’s the only way to align our desired outcome (improved academic learning) with financial incentive.

Otherwise, “The Simpsons” will continue to be seen as an instruction manual, and not simply entertainment, by too many public-school officials.

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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