Thoughts on the Education Rally

April 1, 2015

Brandon Dutcher

With this year’s education rally behind us, here are six observations about one of the key themes at the rally — education funding.

First, whether Oklahoma ranks 1st or 50th in education funding, it seems to me that $8,804 per pupil is enough to deliver a quality education. (It certainly seems to be enough in Oklahoma’s private schools, which charge roughly $4,500 on average at elementary schools and $6,900 for high school.) In addition, I think it’s worth noting that my colleague Jonathan Small, citing Oklahoma Department of Education data, shows per-pupil available revenues of $12,481 per pupil.

Second, regardless of whether Oklahoma ranks 1st or 50th in education funding, parents and taxpayers need to be asking a more important question: Does more spending lead to better student performance? Oklahomans are skeptical that it does (it’s basically a 50-50 toss-up), and they’re right to be. The evidence does not suggest that more spending will help. Even President Obama has acknowledged that per-pupil spending has gone up in the last couple of decades in this country while performance has gone down.

Third, if raising per-pupil expenditures is the goal, then let’s do it by using vouchers or education savings accounts. Indeed, whatever level of per-pupil expenditures the education establishment deems optimal, you can count me as being enthusiastically on board with it — as long as policymakers fund the students, not the system.

Fourth, regarding teacher pay hikes: Rather than evaluating teachers as individual professionals, why do we insist on treating them more like unskilled laborers, as if they were interchangeable automatons? In what other profession do professionals get across-the-board pay raises?

Oklahoma has some excellent teachers, and many of us want them to be millionaires (just like Kim Ki-hoon, a highly sought-after teacher in South Korea). Oklahoma also has some good teachers, and they deserve a raise. Oklahoma has some mediocre teachers. And, as one local superintendent has acknowledged, Oklahoma also has “some really bad teachers who shouldn’t be able to get a job.” Why should Oklahoma’s waitresses and nurses and welders and small-businessmen be forced to spend their hard-earned money giving pay raises to unsatisfactory teachers? It makes no sense. To their credit, Oklahomans, by a margin of 58 percent to 40 percent, say that pay raises should be given “based on the quality of each teacher’s work” rather than across the board.

Fifth, there’s more than one way to put money in teachers’ pockets. For example, state Sen. AJ Griffin and state Rep. Leslie Osborn have proposed eliminating the state income tax for teachers. In addition, state Rep. Glen Mulready and state Sen. Greg Treat want to empower teachers to save thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket healthcare costs.

Lastly, this whole conversation about money has an air of unreality about it. The author G. K. Chesterton once observed that men can always be blind to a problem so long as it’s big enough. We’ve got 400,000 school-produced illiterates in this state, and yet many people continue to propose pouring more money into a failing system without making real changes. Former Governor Frank Keating and former state treasurer Scott Meacham may or may not share my policy recommendations, but I believe their assessment is spot-on: “It appears policymakers, the education establishment, and even a vocal minority of parents in Oklahoma are in a state of denial when it comes to what’s happening.”