Governor Stitt has made it his goal to move Oklahoma toward top ten status among the states. Exactly how he would measure this is unclear, but education is obviously targeted, given its prominence in his inaugural speech. This much is clear, though; Oklahoma will not become a top-ten state in education just by spending more money.
The truth is, rankings of state public education systems are inconsistent. WalletHub ranks Oklahoma 33rd, ahead of braggadocios Texas at 36th, and well behind our highest-ranked neighbor, Colorado, at 10th. Other rankings put Oklahoma solidly in the bottom ten of states. U.S. News ranks us 42nd; USA Today, 45th; and Education Week, 47th. These three rankings place Texas significantly above us, and our highest-ranked neighbors are variously Colorado and Kansas. The region most represented in the top ten is the northeast.
These rankings are complicated, taking account of ACT and SAT results that are not easily compared from state to state, in addition to a plethora of other arbitrary factors. WalletHub’s ranking, for example, emphasizes school safety, where Oklahoma does well. All consider higher spending the same as higher quality, but there are too many examples to list that show this not to be true.
A new ranking put together by scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas and published by CATO takes a simpler and more rational approach to state rankings, by ranking quality and efficiency separately. They use National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, the nation’s gold standard in academic performance measurement. They also account for demography, recognizing that for various cultural reasons, students of different ethnicities, on average, perform differently on the NAEP.
It turns out Texas actually does a better job of educating students of various ethnicities than most northeastern states with less diverse populations, so much so that Texas ranks 6th in the quality ranking. Washington, DC ranks 5th, because that district does a relatively good job educating its particular population, compared to most. Oklahoma ranks a low 41st in educational quality, outranking only Arkansas when compared to our nearby neighbors.
An efficiency ranking does not view higher spending positively. Greater efficiency comes from getting the most out of resources, so given Oklahoma’s spending level, often considered low, surely we are relatively efficient. In fact, with our higher efficiency ranking at 26th, of our nearby neighbors, only Texas (2nd) and Colorado (9th) rank higher. But, California and high-spending Washington, DC are also more efficient than us because cost of living is taken into account, and Oklahoma is not really a low spender when cost of living is considered.
Spending more on public education, and nothing else, as many in our legislature have promised, is guaranteed to make Oklahoma’s public education system even less efficient. In fact, the UT-Dallas study overstates our efficiency ranking because last year’s big spending increase is not included.
Thus far, the public education establishment has only promised the same methods with more money, making the definition of insanity – doing the same thing while expecting different results – particularly relevant. What we need are new, proven ideas that hold some hope that Oklahoma will improve educationally in both quality and efficiency, not the usual new gimmicks with big price tags. The Tulsa schools’ recent innovations using current resources, emphasizing career training and openness to nontraditional approaches, offer some hope. It is this hope for real improvement that drives so many who advocate for school choice, a proven way to improve educational outcomes. And how about this. Just expecting better work – from everybody – doesn’t cost a dime.
Byron Schlomach is director of The 1889 Institute, an independent group of scholars dedicated to making Oklahoma the best it can be. They are not affiliated with a political party, do not receive any money from any government entity.