Trent England | December 10, 2018
Money not enough to solve education crisis
The Oklahoma Legislature this year raised taxes and gave all the money to education. These actions came in response to a coalition of business and community leaders advocating a package of tax and spending increases along with reforms. Predictably, taxes and spending went up, but reforms went by the wayside. Adults won, but what about students?
Today, The Oklahoman praises renewed talk of education reform.
Any focus on substantive reform is welcome, particularly since the 2018 session failed to move the needle on education in a notable way. Lawmakers raised taxes by hundreds of millions and approved the largest teacher pay raise in state history and the largest one-year increase in school appropriations.
But little changed in response. School officials report this year's teacher shortage is worse than last year's. If salaries alone were the problem, then the teacher shortage should have improved after the hefty pay raises, which left Oklahoma with the second-highest teacher salaries in the region.
In October, The Oklahoman ran an important story with the headline: “ACT scores show many Oklahoma high school graduates not prepared for college-level courses.” In fact, the vast majority of Oklahoma’s 2018 high school graduates—more than four out of five—are unprepared for college. “Only 16 percent of Oklahoma students met all four college readiness benchmarks in English, mathematics, reading and science,” according to the report, “while 43 percent met zero benchmarks.”
Will money solve this crisis? The trouble is, there are many ways to spend money that do not help students at all. Oklahoma has a high number of school districts, relative to other states, which is just one of the reasons why Oklahoma schools have a high number of non-teaching staff. When secondary schools fail, remediation costs are imposed on higher education as well as tuition-paying families. Some education expenditures may harm student learning, like relying too much on technology.
Money without reform is not the answer, but reforming schools is no easy task. The biggest stumbling block is the assumption that there is one best way to educate. If all kids were the same, that would be true. And if all teachers were the same, it would be possible. In the real world, students and teachers have different strengths and needs.
One way to address this within the traditional public school system is to move power to the local level. Moving school board elections to November would increase voter engagement. Giving districts more autonomy to raise and spend funds could do the same while making district leaders more accountable to their own communities.
The sure path to better efficiencies and better outcomes is the most local kind of control: parents. Most of education today is on autopilot. Everyone is compelled to pay for one system. Students get a “free” education only within that system (with a few important exceptions). Is that kind of a monopoly likely ever to be efficient, or to produce excellence?
Allowing all parents to choose the education that is best for their own children, and direct the resources to pay for it, would shift incentives. Parents would have a greater reason to be engaged. Teachers would have more choices. Schools would need to spend money wisely and to produce excellence.
In a school where many kids thrive, some will not. What is best for one student will not work for others. Any reform that increases options makes it less likely that students will be left behind. If we want to get the best return on our investment in education, local control and options for families are essential reforms.
David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow
Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.