Budget & Tax, Education

The Bogus Budget: Money for schools

May 9, 2017

Trent England

Can a government agency be so important that it must not be questioned or held to account? Of course, that would be absurd. It would guarantee waste, or worse.

Every taxpayer dollar—whether spent on public safety, national defense, or education—should be spent well, even stretched, and is subject to accountability.

So can we talk about public schools? Is that okay? Is it possible that even in one of Oklahoma’s highest priorities and most expensive government functions, there are things that could be done better, or at a lower cost (or both)?

The truth is, Oklahoma’s schools, on average, are top heavy. An analysis found Oklahoma teacher pay could be $6,000 higher today if administration had grown at the same rate as the student population over the last 23 years. A national report similarly found that, over the last 65 years, non-teaching staff has increased seven-times faster than students. The same report finds that administrators protect their own: when cutting staff, they are far more likely to fire classroom teachers than non-teaching staff.

The government’s schools also operate in a bizarre world of budget silos and multiple layers of mandates that either force or provide excuses for upside-down spending priorities. As reported by Oklahoma Watch in the Tulsa World, over the last few years Catoosa Public Schools bought MacBooks for all middle and high school students, built an expensive new cafeteria, upgraded buses, and built “a $1.5 million press box with an elevator at the high school football field.” The district also cut staff and shortened the school week to four days in order to save about $200,000.

All this suggests parts of the public school system really are strapped for cash—areas like teacher pay or basic classroom necessities like books. It also shows that the first answer cannot be to pour more money into the system, but rather to reallocate what’s already there. And there is a lot there.

Why should an Oklahoma family that cannot afford MacBook computers for itself even listen to the self-serving pleas of school administrators who have plenty of cash for technology but plead poverty when it comes to paying teachers? To the extent that state law requires such results, those laws ought to change. Certainly before changing state laws to increase taxes, the legislature should change state laws to allow current funds to be better spent.

This is all part of the bogus budget conversation that some politicians want us to have—a political sleight of hand that insists we all talk about just one part of state spending rather than acknowledging the full cost of government. The bogus budget is a way to protect special interests. It creates pockets of poverty even when spending is up. And it works, right up until we find out the truth, share it with those around us, and hold our elected officials accountable to it.

Update: This post has been edited to remove government data that may double count some funds in certain years.