Budget & Tax, Education

How much is enough?

October 8, 2019

Jonathan Small

Over the past two years, Oklahoma’s political leaders have increased K-12 education funding by $638 million and have increased teacher pay by a combined total average of $7,320 apiece.

Money dedicated to Oklahoma’s education system will hit an all-time high this fiscal year.

That’s no surprise. Ever-increasing education spending—per student, adjusted for inflation—has been a century-long trend in our state, as the chart below indicates.

Of course, money is important. But our state’s political leaders operate in an environment of scarce resources and competing demands. More of them need to start pressing the question: How much is enough? What level of per-pupil spending is sufficient to provide a quality education?

Some in the public-education community have been asked that question—and they don’t particularly like it. “And before any smart-aleck representative asks back, ‘How much is enough?’ I’ll just let you know that we’re nowhere close,” Mid-Del superintendent Rick Cobb informed us in 2016. “I don’t have a number … I don’t have a number. You’re lucky I have my nice words. Just keep adding, and we’ll tell you when you get there.”

That seems haughty, and not respectful to the hardworking Oklahomans who are ponying up their hard-earned money in the form of taxes. Another administrator, former Tahlequah superintendent Lisa Presley, was even more unreasonable: “There has never been enough revenue for public education,” she said, “and there never will be.”

Despite this increased spending, only a third of Oklahoma voters say Oklahoma’s public education system is providing a good return on investment. That needs to change. Now that Oklahoma has “increased spending, across the board,” Gov. Kevin Stitt correctly says, it’s “time that we can show some results for that.”

Prudent budgeting is not smart-alecky. It’s time for the education community’s entrenched special interests to answer the question: How much is enough?

[This article was updated on Feb. 26, 2020 with a new chart.]