BY DAVID AVERILL Editor, Editorial Pages
Sunday, September 16, 2012
9/16/12 at 3:13 AM
A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that Oklahoma was one of only three states whose per-pupil spending for education - kindergarten through grade 12 - declined by more than 20 percent during the Great Recession, from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2013.
Oklahoma now spends on average $706 a year less per-student than it did in 2003, a drop of 20.3 percent. Arizona and Alabama per-pupil spending declined slightly more than Oklahoma's.
The steep decline in school funding was due in part to the recession. Oklahoma depends primarily on sales taxes, personal income taxes and oil and gas gross production taxes, which declined during that period.
The Legislature, however, exacerbated the problem by making annual cuts in state personal income tax rates. That meant that state revenues - and, by extension, education funding - were not allowed to recover as the economy began to recover from the recession.
The precipitous revenue decline is ominous for Oklahoma because the $7,896 it spends per student already ranked 49th among the states and the District of Columbia - that's 49 out of 51 - in education funding.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi was quick to pooh-pooh the report:
"Per-pupil funding is not necessarily a good yardstick for success," she said. "Some of the lowest-performing school systems in the nation also have the highest per-pupil funding."
Of course she would say that. Her actions since she took office suggest that she is less than committed to increasing state funding for public education. She seems more committed to moving money away from local school districts and into charter schools, virtual schools and the like.
There is one glaring example that supports Barresi's argument that school performance does not depend on high levels of funding. That is the District of Columbia, which is always in the top one or two in per-student spending and near the bottom in school performance.
But D.C. is a statistical anomaly, whose spending/performance numbers are skewed by the severe social problems the district faces.
Otherwise, there is a link between school spending and school performance.
One measure of performance is how students do on the ACT test, which is taken by college-bound high school students in every state and is the preferred college entrance test in many states, including Oklahoma.
Arizona and Alabama are the two states that, like Oklahoma, cut per-pupil spending by more than 20 percent since 2003. Arizona ranks 51st in per-pupil spending and its average composite ACT score of 19.7 is second-lowest in the nation. Alabama ranks 41st in per-pupil spending and its composite ACT score of 20.3 is 10th-worst in the country.
Six of the 10 lowest-spending states are in the bottom 10 based on ACT scores.
Oklahoma, 49th in funding, ranks 34th in ACT scores. Its composite score of 20.7, however, lags behind the national average of 21.1
On the flip side, seven of the top 10 states in ACT scores - Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, New York, Vermont and Rhode Island - are also among the top 10 in per-student spending.
ACT scores are not the only gauge of school performance.
Results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show that states where higher percentages of eighth-graders scored proficient or above in reading had higher average per-pupil expenditures the same year. The 10 highest-performing states spent more than $3,000 more per student than the 10 lowest-performing states.
Similar results occurred in fourth-grade reading proficiency tests: The 10 highest-performing states outspent the 10 lowest-performing states by nearly $3,000 per-student.
Barresi and others who are reluctant to push for increased education funding can come up with an example or two that seem to support their argument that school performance is not related to education funding.
But a much stronger argument can be made that there is a real connection between the two.
And there is this: Schools that are starved for money will never be able to pay salaries that attract and retain the best and brightest teachers. And hard-gained reforms, such as the class-size caps included more than 10 years ago in the historic education funding and reform measure known as H.B. 1017, go by the wayside when districts cannot hire enough teachers to maintain them.
With education as with almost all things, quality costs.
David Averill, 918-581-8333
A pair of eighth-graders work on their French homework at Memorial High School last school year. Results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show that states where higher percentages of eighth-graders scored proficient or above in reading had higher average per-pupil expenditures the same year. TOM GILBERT/Tulsa World file
Kindergarden teacher Brenda Brunk (upper right) leads students in a song at Jenks East Elementary School. Oklahoma now spends on average $706 a year less per student than it did in 2003, a drop of 20.3 percent. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World file