I was intrigued when an attendee at a recent legislative town hall suggested Oklahoma should have an eight-year funding plan for education modeled after the state’s transportation funding plan.
I say go for it. The principles that guide the road plan—funding increases tied to measurable results with consequences for failure—can achieve the same results for education that they did for Oklahoma’s transportation system.
With the road plan, the bargain is simple: If taxpayers give transportation officials more money, they get measurable improvement in road-and-bridge conditions in return. The plan is specific and progress easily monitored.
Under a transportation-style plan, more education funding would be tied to improved academic outcomes. For too long, policymakers have acted as though spending, in and of itself, is an achievement, even if outcomes remain the same or decline.
Recent news highlights this sad reality. Over the past two years, lawmakers have increased K-12 funding by $638 million and increased teacher pay by a combined total average of $7,320 apiece. School appropriations have jumped 20 percent in two years.
Teacher pay raises were supposed to solve Oklahoma’s teacher shortage. Instead, the number of emergency certified Oklahoma teachers increased 54 percent in the 2018-2019 school year even after average $6,100 pay raises.
The reaction of the head of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association is instructive. He told the Tulsa World that Oklahoma continues to “have a teacher-shortage crisis,” but also said, “I don’t think anyone thought it would be solved in one year or two years or even five years.”
You never hear similar rationalizations from road-plan supporters.
It’s worth noting the Oklahoma Department of Transportation relies on private contractors, and contractors who do a poor job are barred from additional state work. What succeeds in road-building can also work for education. Why not let parents have a set amount of state funding and choose the school that best suits their children?
Finally, adopting an eight-year plan would require school officials to admit there’s a level of per-pupil spending sufficient to provide a quality education, something many prefer to ignore today. Recall that former Tahlequah Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Presley once declared, “There has never been enough revenue for public education, and there never will be.” Or recall how Mid-Del superintendent Rick Cobb once decried those who asked how much money was enough. “I don’t have a number,” Cobb said, and added, “Just keep adding, and we’ll tell you when you get there.”
But financial planning is not unreasonable. And demanding an unending siphoning of taxpayer resources, with no promise of improvement, is not a plan. After $638 million in new spending, Oklahomans taxpayers deserve a better progress report than “check back in five years.”
Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).