| April 2, 2013

Will more spending make Oklahoma students learn more?

The big spenders at the state Capitol are out with their prescription for public education, and it’s the same formula they always fall back on — “invest” in education by spending more money! There’s very little discussion of what that extra money might buy, where it would actually be spent, or who might be held accountable for it. Just “spend more!”

Oklahoma taxpayers expect a good return on their investment — and they know they aren’t getting one. It stands to reason that if you want a return from “investing” in schools it ought to be in the form of more learning. Learning is measured by (among other things) test scores, and the most conclusive test score is the ACT exam taken by most Oklahoma high school seniors each year. So how does school spending correlate to those scores?

In 2011, the last year with available data, Oklahoma spent, from all sources, $8,307 per student in our public schools. Our high school seniors averaged 20.8 on the ACT, somewhat below the national average score of 21.1. The big spenders assure us that if we’d just boost spending (inputs) we’d get higher scores (outputs). Fortunately, we can test drive that hypothesis by checking some individual school district data.

Bartlesville Schools spent $7,254 per pupil in 2011, more than a thousand bucks under the state average. Probably bought lousy test scores too, right? Nope. Bartlesville seniors averaged 23.5 on the ACT.

Heavener Schools spent about $500 per pupil more than average ($8,821). Their seniors averaged just 19.0 on the ACT, below even the not-so-hot state average.

Surely those are outliers. Nope again. Drive up to Deer Creek, one of the finest schools in Oklahoma. ACT average of 23.4. Per pupil spending? $6,462. Now shuttle down to McCurtain Schools in Haskell County. They spent $9,068 per pupil and got a 16.9 ACT average.

All across the state, from district to district and county to county, there is no apparent correlation between per pupil spending and educational outcomes. This is true nationally as well. Of course, longtime readers of this blog already know that (see chart above).

Here’s a question to ask the next big spender you meet: At 2011 levels of per pupil spending, we are “investing” $166,140 in every classroom with 20 students. Average teacher pay is $44,094. Where is the other $122,046 going?

Moreover, do you really believe that just hurling another basket of cash at schools will make kids learn more? We didn’t think so.

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