| May 6, 2013

Oklahoma's monopoly education system gets more money

Like cicadas emerging from their shells, they come out every spring — a delegation from Oklahoma’s monopoly education system warning us with dire looks that we absolutely must “invest” more millions in our schools. To achieve exactly what they never quite make clear, but this year as in past years there’s a number attached. For 2013, it’s $117 million. They didn’t quite get what they wanted this year, but state Superintendent Janet Barresi did announce on Thursday that preK-12 education would receive $91 million in new funds for the next fiscal year.

But a quick glance at the chart above, as well as a look at Oklahoma school data from the most recent year, 2011, suggests this is not going to be money well spent.

  • Since 1990, when House Bill 1017 was passed to “save” Oklahoma schools from a legacy of supposed underfunding, state appropriations for common education have risen from about $880 million in that year to $2.6 billion today. In effect, we have tripled state school spending in just over two decades, by far the largest such increase for any function of government in state history.
  • In those same years school enrollment did increase — by about 10 percent.
  • So, with that massive increase in inputs (your dollars), we ought to see at least some increase in outputs, measurable in this case by improved test scores. Not so. The ACT average in Oklahoma was about a half a point below the national average in 1990. It’s about a half a point below the national average today.
  • What has increased is the roster of administrators. We had 3,433 school administrators in 2011, earning an average of $74,858, or about one administrator for every 12 teachers. That's an increase of 435 administrators over the 2,998 employed in 1999 — even though the total number of school districts has declined. None of this comes as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with economist Ben Scafidi’s work on Oklahoma’s school staffing surge.
  • We also have 527 school districts, each with a superintendent and district staff, 294 of them with less than 500 students. The simple economies-of-scale rule should warn us that we’re spending a lot of money that never gets near a classroom.
  • That turns out to be true. In 2011, the total share of school dollars from all sources that was spent on instruction was 55.2 percent. That was down from 58.6 percent in 1995. And as you might also expect, the share of administrative overhead in those 294 small districts is about twice what it is in the larger ones.
  • So when we give another $91 million to the government’s monopoly system, past performance tells us that maybe $50 million of it will ever see the inside of a classroom, while the rest will be spent in the front office. A private business that spent just over half of its assets on things like products and customer service would be called grossly inefficient. What would you call Oklahoma public education?

Taxpayer dollars are precious, scarce resources that have many alternative uses. Giving more of those dollars to a failed government monopoly does a disservice to taxpayers.

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