THE writer H.L. Mencken is credited with saying, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” That expression comes to mind when considering the claim that the only problem with Oklahoma education is the amount spent on the public school system.
Depending on how money is used, increased funding can certainly have an impact. But if money alone determines outcomes, then a state’s educational achievement would be in direct correlation to its spending level. Two recent reports highlight that this isn’t the case.
When the Census Bureau recently released its “Public Education Finances: 2015” report, The 74, a nonpartisan news site covering education, noted per-pupil spending experienced the largest increase nationally since 2008. Yet the extra cash did not necessarily translate into better academic results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The site reported “even as spending on students ticks up in post-recession years, and even when that spending is adjusted for regional price parity, kids aren’t proving to be doing much better academically.”
Census data showed California’s per-pupil spending increased 13.52 percent from 2013 to 2015, leading the nation. During that time, California’s average fourth-grade NAEP reading score increased just 0.13 of a point and the score on eighth-grade math declined.
Utah, in contrast, increased spending just 0.31 percent during the same period, the least in the country, yet its fourth-grade reading score increased 3.38 points and the eighth-grade math score increased 1.785 points. Utah was one of only six states to experience a gain in math scores.
During that same period, Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding increased 5.34 percent, a higher rate than in 27 states. Oklahoma’s fourth-grade NAEP reading score increased 4.84 points while the eighth-grade math score declined 0.921 of a point.
A similar pattern is notable when examining the results of the website WalletHub’s recent evaluation of the nation’s top-performing state school systems based on 21 key measures. WalletHub’s evaluation not only included measures of academic achievement, but measurements of school safety.
Oklahoma schools ranked 18th nationally, ahead of many states spending much more money per pupil. Indeed, WalletHub ranked Oklahoma 47th on spending.
In contrast, New York ranked second for spending, but 26th in school-system quality. Rhode Island ranked ninth on spending but 25th on quality.
Granted, both reports found states where higher spending and higher educational rankings coexisted. But the most notable thing in both reports was that there was no consistent correlation between spending and academic outcomes.
As we’ve noted before, Oklahoma experienced the third-largest gain nationally in fourth-grade reading scores on the 2015 NAEP. That improvement didn’t coincide with any dramatic funding increase. But it did occur in the aftermath of a law banning social promotion of third-grade students who are at least two years below grade level in reading.
Similar policy focus hasn’t been placed on math, so it’s not surprising math remains a problem area in Oklahoma schools.
Spending can have an impact, no doubt. But the data shows good policy is even more important, and that good policy can generate academic improvement even without dramatic spending increases.