Ray Carter | August 9, 2022

Some public schools have elite-prep-school funding, not results

Ray Carter

Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding for public schools typically ranks low in 50-state comparisons. But significant local property-tax bases have allowed several dozen Oklahoma districts to achieve dramatically higher per-pupil funding levels.

In a significant share of those districts, per-pupil funding exceeds not only the average in Oklahoma, but also most states, and some districts have per-pupil funding that exceeds the cost of tuition at even the most expensive private-school in Oklahoma.

Yet many of those non-state-aid school districts still generate subpar academic outcomes.

State data show that even with significant per-pupil funding, many districts’ academic outcomes trail state averages, as does teacher pay at many of the schools.

That doesn’t shock experts.

“I’m not surprised by those numbers,” said Patrick J. Wolf, interim department head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. “In public education, extra spending tends to have only a very weak relationship with student achievement. Yes, if it is spent on the right things, extra resources do increase student learning. The problem is that many districts do not direct extra resources into the classroom. Instead, they spend it on elaborate facilities and more administrators.”

Results Undermine Past Claims of Spending Advocates

While Wolf may not be surprised that high spending hasn’t automatically translated into high academic performance, the data run counter to claims commonly made by individuals and groups who have endorsed significant school-funding increases rather than reform.

In 2020, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) decried what it called a “persistent education investment gap” between Oklahoma and surrounding states. Citing National Center for Education Statistics data from the 2016-2017 school year, the most recent available at that time, OSSBA said Oklahoma’s 2020 per-pupil spending of $9,214 remained below the per-pupil spending in most neighboring states during the 2016-2017 school year, with those states spending between $9,520 and $10,684 per student.

The OSSBA release indicated that an additional $1,470 per student was required, at a minimum, to top the regional average, an amount that equated to $11,557 total per student in the 2020-2021 school year.

OSSBA officials suggested increased per-pupil funding would translate into better results, stating, “With additional support, schools could continue to up compensation packages for teachers to combat the teacher shortage, restore teaching positions cut in past years to reduce class sizes, add back or add new academic and extracurricular opportunities, hire more counselors and/or support staff, and offer more social, emotional and health supports for students.”

In April 2021, state Sen. Cari Hicks, an Oklahoma City Democrat and former teacher, went further and said an additional $3,000 per student would be required to “fully fund” public schools. That equated to $13,087 per student at that time.

A recent study on Oklahoma’s K-12 public-school funding, conducted by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT), included an appendix that identified 45 school districts in Oklahoma that received no money from the state’s school-funding formula in the 2020-2021 school year because those districts have local property tax funding that typically more than offsets the loss of state appropriations.

The statewide average property valuation per student is $57,746, but the average in the districts that do not receive state aid runs from $85,163 (Nashoba) to $766,389 (Balko), according to the state Office of Educational Quality & Accountability, giving those districts significant local property tax funding.

According to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, per-pupil funding at the 45 non-state-aid districts ranged from $9,928 per student to $45,189. Only one district, Oakdale, had per-pupil funding lower than the state average of $10,087 per student.

And per-pupil funding at the non-state-aid schools was at least 23-percent higher than the state average at all but three of the 45 districts.

More than 40 of the districts have per-pupil funding levels equal to, or greater than, the amounts previously endorsed by advocates of increased school spending such as OSSBA and Hicks.

But significantly higher spending has not produced significantly higher academic results.

Outcomes Often Below State Average at High-Funded Schools

In 18 high-funded districts, the average ACT score was below the state average, despite significantly greater per-pupil funding.

The statewide average ACT score in the 2019-2020 school year was 18.8, according to the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. But the ACT composite scores at the 18 aforementioned schools ranged from 14.6 at Dover (per-pupil spending of $19,721) to 18.6 in three districts: Springer ($13,795), Cushing ($12,454), and Waynoka ($20,056).

In 2020, the national average composite ACT score was 20.6. Only four of Oklahoma’s high-funded schools beat the national average ACT score—Reydon (21.3), Lomega (21.1), Kiowa (20.7), and Burlington (20.7). Those four districts had per-pupil funding of $22,322 (Reydon), $18,996 (Lomega), $16,111 (Kiowa), and $22,611 (Burlington).

The average ACT score at all Oklahoma public high schools that received no state aid was below the levels typical for students admitted to the University of Oklahoma, where 2021 freshman class members had an average ACT composite score of 26.4. The schools’ average ACT scores were also below the level necessary for admission to Oklahoma State University, which requires an ACT score of 24 or better to meet “assured admission criteria.”

Only eight of the schools achieved an average ACT score that would meet or exceed the requirement for admission to the University of Central Oklahoma, which requires an ACT score of 20.

Similar trends are notable in the results of state testing.

State testing was not conducted in the 2019-2020 school year due to COVID. But in the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent for which results are available, 24 percent of students statewide tested proficient or better. In the pre-COVID 2018-2019 school year, 33 percent of students statewide tested proficient or better.

But at 19 Oklahoma schools that enjoy some of the state’s highest levels of per-pupil funding, the share of students testing proficient or better was nonetheless lower than the state average in 2020-2021. Testing at those schools showed a range of 22 percent proficient at Sweetwater ($24,549 per student) to 2 percent at Nashoba ($14,149).

In only five of the districts did an outright majority of students test proficient or better in the subjects and grades tested in 2020-2021, despite high levels of per-pupil funding. And one of those five districts was Oakdale, which has slightly lower per-pupil funding than the state average.

The schools’ results were generally better in pre-COVID testing, but proficiency rates were still lower than the statewide average in 12 of the high-funded districts. Billings ranked lowest with just 10 percent of students proficient despite spending $20,214 per student. And only in eight of the districts did an outright majority of students test proficient or better during the 2018-2019 school year.

The gap between high spending and results was especially stark in a few districts.

The Billings district in Noble County had $20,214 per pupil, but just 4 percent of students tested proficient or better on the most recent round of state testing. Moreover, 77 percent of students were “below basic” in 2020-2021, a level indicating students are performing more than a year below grade level. And the district had 54 percent of students testing “below basic” prior to COVID.

Similarly, the Nashoba district in Pushmataha County spent $14,189 per student, but only 2 percent tested proficient or better in the 2020-2021 school year with 54 percent of students testing “below basic.”

Poor academic outcomes are often blamed on a combination of low per-pupil funding levels and an abundance of low-income students in a district. But state data show that 23 districts that receive no state aid have both higher per-pupil funding and lower rates of economically disadvantaged children than the state average. (Another district, Oakdale, had slightly lower per-pupil funding along with a much lower rate of economically disadvantaged children.)

Elite Prep-School Prices, but Not Results

The statewide average per-pupil funding of $10,087 per student at public schools exceeds the average tuition charged at Oklahoma private schools, according to data compiled by the website, Private School Review. That organization’s analysis of tuition at 42 Oklahoma private schools found that private elementary schools’ average tuition cost is $6,694 per year while the private high school average is $7,789 per year. Tuition at 36 private schools was less than the current statewide public-school per-pupil funding of $10,087.

However, some private schools do charge significantly more. According to Private School Review, the most expensive private school in Oklahoma is Casady School in the Oklahoma City area. That private school charges tuition of $21,370 per year.

Sixteen public-school districts in Oklahoma have per-pupil funding of more than $20,000 per student. Data compiled by Public School Review, and a separate report for the state of Hawaii, show that amount exceeds the average in 40 states, including Oklahoma.

And among the Oklahoma public schools that receive no state aid, 10 have per-pupil expenditures that exceed even Casady’s tuition. Those districts are Frontier ($21,930 per student), Reydon ($22,322), Burlington ($22,611), White Oak ($23,759), Sweetwater ($24,549), Medford ($24,668), Balko ($26,000), Bray-Doyle ($26,387), Taloga ($34,406) and Freedom ($45,149).

But academic results at those districts do not compare with the results achieved at private schools.

In a review of 25 private schools in Oklahoma, Private School Review reported an average composite ACT score of 25.

Private School Review reported that Casady students achieved an average composite ACT score of 28. That was well above the results for public schools that had per-pupil funding greater than Casady’s tuition. Those schools’ ACT scores were as follows: Frontier (18.5), Reydon (21.3), Burlington (20.7), Medford (17.5), Balko (17.9), Bray-Doyle (18.3), Taloga (18.4) and Freedom (17.7).

(White Oak and Sweetwater serve only elementary and middle-school students who do not take the ACT.)

According to the ACT, just 42 percent of individuals who take the test achieve a composite score of 18 or lower. Or, put another way, nearly six in 10 test-takers score above 18.

In the Dover district, per-pupil expenditures reach $19,721, according to state data, which is 96 percent above the state average. But the average ACT composite score in the district was 14.6. ACT reports that just 24 percent of test-takers achieve a composite score of 15 or lower, meaning nearly three-fourths of ACT test-takers outscore Dover students. Dover’s average teacher salary was also below the state average.

In contrast, some Oklahoma private schools are paid substantially less per student in tuition but generate far better results than their public-school counterparts, as measured by the ACT.

Private School Review reports that the average ACT in Corn Bible Academy in Clinton is 25 while its tuition is $6,550 per year.

Southwest Covenant Schools in Yukon charges up to $8,568 per year for high-school students, which is less than the statewide average per-pupil funding in all Oklahoma public schools.

Steve Lessman, headmaster at Southwest Covenant, said the school’s graduating classes typically have an average composite ACT score in the mid-20s, ranging between 24 and 26. He said that outcome is achieved despite school officials not having all the financial resources they might have in another setting.

“We have outstanding educators who feel called by God to be in a Christian-education environment,” Lessman said. “They are outstanding at what they do, and they understand that sometimes in Christian ministry the resources aren’t always as available, especially as much as public funds are sometimes available. A lot of people make a lot of sacrifices to do a great job here.”

While school officials are proud of their graduates’ academic achievements, he said that is not the prime goal of officials at Southwest Covenant.

“Our academic success is a byproduct of our culture, not our number one mission,” Lessman said. “For us, education is a context in which we do ministry. And so our mission is ministry-centered first and foremost.”

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs reached out to several non-state-aid public-school districts for comment. As of publication, none had responded.

State Rep. Chad Caldwell, an Enid Republican who has long focused on education issues, said the data on the 40-plus schools receiving no state aid aligns with trends seen in the broader Oklahoma public-school system and nationwide.

“As we have continued to see across the country, there is no direct link between per-student revenue and student outcomes,” Caldwell said. “What matters most is what our schools are doing with taxpayer dollars once they receive them. While Oklahomans have invested record amounts in our schools these past years, our schools continue to divert funds away from the classroom where it is needed most. Sadly, no matter how much money our schools receive, they continue to rank among the worst in the country for the percentage of dollars they send to the classroom for our students and teachers.”

NOTE: Data referenced in this article on each of the 45 non-state-aid districts, along with sources and statewide comparisons, may be viewed here.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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