Government officials often refer to government spending as an “investment” to suggest a business approach is being applied to public policy. But if spending equals investment, then Oklahomans must ask, “What are the results?”
When it comes to our school system, results are now worse than they were before the “investment” of the past two years.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card, Oklahoma student scores declined in fourth and eighth grade reading, were stagnant in fourth grade math, and improved slightly in eight grade math (by a margin considered statistically insignificant). Oklahoma students remain below the national average in all NAEP subjects.
On the ACT exam, Oklahoma students’ scores declined in every subject this year. In fact, 46 percent of students failed to meet ACT college-readiness benchmarks in any of the subjects tested.
When Oklahoma state test results were released months ago, they showed academic achievement was lower in 2019 than in 2017. In every subject and grade tested, a majority performed below grade level.
Those declining results have occurred even though lawmakers increased K-12 school appropriations by 20 percent over the last two sessions.
Some will object it’s unrealistic to expect a dramatic turnaround in just over a year. I don’t disagree. But is it unrealistic to think academic results should at least stop declining after such huge spending increases?
If “investment” alone is failing to stem the bleeding, let alone generate improvement, then more is needed. Policy changes must also be adopted. And parents in one of the state’s worst school systems have highlighted one solution.
Tulsa Public Schools faces a $20 million shortfall. The district’s leadership blames its financial problems on state funding cuts. But, as noted, the state has not been tightfisted over the last two years. Instead, Tulsa’s true problem is that students are leaving the district in droves and state funding is following them out the exits.
Where are those students going? According to the Tulsa World, 3,700 students left TPS for Epic Charter Schools, an online provider, from summer 2013 to June 2019, while another 3,300 students left for brick-and-mortar charter schools.
Parents are taking stock of the results of state “investment” in districts like Tulsa, and are responding by voting with their feet and moving children to schools that produce better outcomes. The greatest challenge for those families is not a lack of state “investment” in schools; it’s a limited array of school choices when their geographically assigned school fails to deliver results.
Combining school choice with greater education funding is policymakers’ best path to improving Oklahoma’s education system and student outcomes. Otherwise, next year may end the same as this year—with policymakers baffled that schools not only failed to improve after tax-and-spending increases, but actually got worse.
Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).