Free Market Friday: The truth about education spending

Jonathan Small

Jonathan Small

Oklahomans know they’re not getting a good return on their public education investments.

A survey last year of 1,016 likely Oklahoma voters by the firm Cor Strategies found that only 22 percent think taxpayers are getting a good ROI – while 66 percent do not.

And it’s not just Republicans, 60 percent of Democrats say we’re not getting a good ROI.

They’re right. Oklahoma’s public education revenues are near record highs – yet most of our students lack proficiency in nearly every subject tested. (The only exception is 10th-grade history, in which 51 percent of students are proficient.) These dismal results have occurred for decades, regardless of funding.

According to the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System, in 2016 revenue per student ($12,818) and spending per student ($9,781) were higher than in 2006, even when adjusted for inflation.

Where did the money go?

Economist Benjamin Scafidi, using federal data, shows that between 1992 and 2014 Oklahoma’s “average teacher salaries increased by only 4 percent – and class sizes got bigger.”

Why? Oklahoma schools prioritized the hiring of non-teachers – instead of an $8,872 teacher pay raise that could have been.

Don’t misunderstand: Many non-teachers are doing vital work. But something is wrong when our education system employs more non-teachers than teachers.

The problem is not a lack of money, yet some still like to brandish a flawed report from a George Soros-funded, Washington, D.C.-based liberal think tank whose policy priorities are higher taxes and bigger government. Some cherry-pick numbers from said report by excluding massive items like House Bill 1017 funds and Oklahoma’s health and pension benefit payments for teachers. Or, they use a year as a baseline where states’ budgets (including Oklahoma’s) were overinflated by hundreds of millions in Obama stimulus dollars.

It’s no wonder former state Senate boss Brian Bingman – expressing the sentiment of many knowledgeable lawmakers – would say the report “stretches the truth beyond the breaking point.”

I’m all in favor of lawmakers increasing per-pupil spending – if they create an option to give the money to parents rather than to a bureaucratic system.

In its new “OK2030” plan, the State Chamber of Oklahoma Research Foundation recommends the creation of an education savings account program in which the state deposits a portion of your child’s per-pupil funding into a parent-controlled bank account.

Let parents decide how to get the best return on investment.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (

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