| August 5, 2013

School Spending Up, Student Achievement Flat

Every year, I perform in the Oklahoma City Gridiron show, a charity roast of local, state, and national politicians which raises money for scholarships.

One of the most popular routines is a knock-off of the old “Carnac the Magnificent” skits Johnny Carson did on The Tonight Show. In our skits, “Gridnac” is given an envelope, then guesses the question hidden inside before opening it to see if he is right (which he always is).

Every single year, for a long spell now, one of Gridnac’s magical answers is this: “Boy, the Dallas Cowboys really stink this year.” Inside the envelope, there is … no question.

Changing the subject now to public policy …

Answer: Higher spending in real terms, and classroom mediocrity, in every objective measurement.

Question: What have taxpayers, parents, and students—nationwide and in Oklahoma—received in return for almost five decades of an open checkbook for school expenditures?

In last winter’s Oklahoma City school board elections, the most telling paid advertisements were those that emphasized low scores, for many city schools, on the much-maligned A-F school grading system. Having heard many arguments against those grades, citizens who cared enough to vote decided the assessments were pretty much on target. They swept out a two-term board president and replaced her with a passionate critic of the way things are.

Across the nation, recent news stories have called attention to slight drops in taxpayer funding for America’s government-run schools over the last couple of years. Defenders of the status quo tout this as the reason student achievement remains lackluster in U.S. public schools. But, in truth, there is no question: For at least five decades, too many schools have been failing taxpayers, parents, students, communities, and the nation.

Walk through the evidence.

In May, The Wall Street Journal reported, “Education officials say decreased spending will make it more difficult to prepare U.S. students for an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Some critics argue that public education costs are skyrocketing while academic achievement has not kept pace. They want the system overhauled before more money is spent.”

But the exception (a slight decline or flattening in education spending recently) by no means disproves the rule (public education spending has grown significantly over the last half century of American history).

Look at the Cato Institute chart below. It sketches total cost increases for U.S. public schools since 1970 (that’s the blue line, a hike of 160 percent or more).

CATO Institute

The Institute’s Andrew Coulson also sketches the increased number of employees (that gold line, showing a nearly 100 percent hike since 1970) and total enrollment (the dotted line, showing declines for 20 years after 1970, before slowly climbing in the subsequent three decades). And, wait for it … at the foot of the chart you can see the flat-lined achievement scores for reading, math, and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), popularly known as “the nation’s report card.”

Even if the venerable NAEP is somehow suddenly deficient as a reasonable measure of achievement in the aggregate, it echoes what every objective measure of student achievement tells us.

Despite spending increases and personnel increases over time, American student performance has declined, flattened, or infrequently blipped up temporarily, only to fall back again.

Average scores on the SAT, one of the two most prominent measures of college preparedness, declined in 2012. As for the ACT, scores stayed flat in 2011 and 2012.

Even critics of standardized testing say that, in the aggregate and over the course of years, the two college preparatory tests are, like the NAEP itself, a reliable way of looking at overall achievement (if not necessarily individual student potential).

A Washington Post education writer recently reported that one of those critics—Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing—concludes “aggregate SAT and ACT scores trends are one tool for evaluating overall education quality—and they point to the conclusion that U.S. K-12 education is headed in the wrong direction.”

Let’s bring it home, and give Oklahoma at least this much: About three-quarters of our students take the ACT before high school graduation. This puts us in the handful of states that have the equivalent of an exit examination that, over time, provides a consistent measure of what most kids get from 12 to 14 years of Oklahoma schooling.

And that is? Since 1990, less than a five percent improvement (despite a 40 percent-plus spending increase) in ACT scores for graduating seniors in the Sooner State. Since 2007, Oklahoma has been stuck at or around an average score of 20.7.

Percent Change in Education Revenues and Achievement

Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency is a man the National Education Association loves to hate. His national analysis of five-year trends in per-pupil spending from 2005-06 to 2010-11 found a 0.2 percent decline in enrollment, a 16 percent increase in taxpayer funding, and flat or declining achievement.

No matter how you look at it, there’s a bottom line, and the Cato Institute’s Coulson gets us there: “By the time students are preparing to enter higher education or the workforce, they are no better prepared academically than they were two generations ago—despite the fact that we have spent three times as much on their K-12 education as we did educating the class of 1970.”

There’s no question.

The story is the same in Oklahoma City. In 2001, voters approved a massive tax increase to finance infrastructure improvements throughout the metropolitan area, for all 21 public school districts in or touching the city. Despite this spending, achievement in local public schools has flattened and in some cases declined.

Voters, parents, and school patrons are not stupid. They know that despite the nice new or fully refurbished buildings, the actual results in students’ lives are, in the aggregate, unimpressive. There are pockets of high achievement, but those exceptions make the rule frustrating.

Statewide and in the city, the education establishment had denigrated attempts to establish end-of-instruction tests to raise the bar in public education. So, as a result of actions taken in the 2013 legislative session, the state is more or less backing away from those tests.

What’s beyond dispute is this: Whether achievement is measured by NAEP, SAT, ACT, or the Iowa test or the EOI tests for high school seniors, our schools are failing our students, taxpayers, community, state, and country.

Our people, whatever else they’re missing, know the system is failing. When will those who get paid to run that system know it?

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of He is the editor of seven books on legal policy, and the author or co-author of three books, including Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork. The PBS affiliate in Oklahoma City announced last month thatt McGuigan has been nominated for a regional Emmy Award.

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