When It Comes To Education Spending, Who’s Right?
Last year’s teacher walkout brought a renewed focus on Oklahoma’s financial commitment to public schools.
And with the 2019 legislative session underway, education leaders are reiterating a push to supply schools with more money. Some conservatives argue more money is not the answer, that any wasteful spending must be cut first. Others say both should occur.
Amid the debate, there are conflicting narratives about whether school spending in Oklahoma has declined, and if so, by how much. The conflict gives rise to some basic questions: What is the best measure of school spending in Oklahoma? How does current spending compare to past years’ and other states’?
The answers, as it turns out, are complicated.
Public school funding is one of the state’s most important functions. It’s in the state constitution, under Article XIII: “The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.” Education funding comprises the largest chunk of the state budget – about $2.9 billion this fiscal year, or well over a third of total state-appropriated dollars. Additional funds flow to schools outside of the appropriation process.
To count education dollars, research and advocacy groups rely on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The center also collects data for the U.S Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of School System Finances. State education departments report local data to the center, but also publish their own data. The findings can be substantially different.
For instance, Oklahoma’s per pupil expenditure in 2015-16 was $9,049 according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and $8,097 according to the Census Bureau. Using state data on total school spending for the same year results in yet another figure: $9,634 per student ($10,079 in today’s dollars). The differences lie in whether certain funding is excluded, such as debt service, capital expenditures and retirement contributions.
Comparing states is even trickier. All states fund schools differently; some rely more heavily on state funding, others on local dollars.
Change Over Time
There are different ways to examine investment levels and trends in public education.
In tracking change over time, one way is to start with a year before the Great Recession, which ran from December 2007 to June 2009. In Oklahoma, that avoids starting at the peak year for school spending – fiscal year 2008-2009, when Oklahoma received $2.6 billion in federal stimulus dollars. More than $425 million of that was put into the education system over several years and is reflected in state spending.
From 2006 to 2017, state data shows, the total amount spent on public elementary and secondary schools increased steadily each year. The includes everything, such as buildings, meals, salaries and wages, transportation, books and technology.
But the picture changes when the number is adjusted for inflation and is more meaningful when also measured in per-pupil dollars. As the number of Oklahoma students goes up, the need for teachers, classrooms and textbooks generally increases.
Examined this way, the funding picture is much less consistent with dips and bumps over the years. Even though 2018 saw an increase in spending, it is still below spending in 2007 to 2011.
But how to count students?
Oklahoma uses two primary ways to tally the number of students: an Oct. 1 head count, which is the number of students present on that day each year, and average daily membership, or ADM, which is the average enrollment divided by the days in the school year; it is used to calculate state funding. (There’s actually a third way to count students, average daily attendance, but it’s not used much.)
The counts can vary among national reports depending on whether certain schools, such as charter schools, are included. But the differences are relatively small.
Since 2006, Oklahoma’s average daily membership has increased by 11 percent.
Sources of Money
Dozens of revenue streams flow into government and school accounts every year to pay for public education. The sources include various local and county property taxes for operations or a building fund, a state gross production tax, interest and rent from state lands, state appropriations that include many earmarks, and federal funding for low-income students, meals and other programs.
All of it can be lumped into three categories: local, state and federal. The majority of funds come from state and local sources, nearly evenly split.
As a district’s local tax revenue increases, its state aid decreases. The purpose is to more or less equalize public-school funding across the state, so that students in property-poor districts aren’t denied a good education.
What to Measure?
Advocacy groups often disagree over which figures are best for measuring financial trends and needs.
That means citizens are confronted with different sets of facts and charts, often marshaled to advocate a position. The facts on both sides may be right. But which are most meaningful?
One example is the tracking of education spending over time.
In several widely publicized studies, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group, reported that Oklahoma had slashed its per-pupil formula funding – the base amount of state aid for schools – by one of the largest margins nationally: 28 percent from 2008 to 2018, adjusted for inflation. Formula funding is a slice of overall funding and excludes local tax and federal revenues. But it’s a significant share and is less likely to have large year-to-year fluctuations caused by major construction projects or federal programs starting or ending.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a research and advocacy group took a different approach. Its data shows that Oklahoma’s per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, declined over more than a decade, with ups and downs. The decrease was 3.8 percent from 2006 to 2017 and 6.7 percent from 2008 to 2017. The amounts included “nearly all spending,” with the exception of annual state contributions to the teacher retirement system.
Among the national rankings, Oklahoma continues to be one of the lowest spenders on public education in the nation. In per-pupil spending, both the Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics rank Oklahoma fourth lowest among states and the District of Columbia. Experts disagree on whether cost of living plays a role in those rankings, in terms of spending on teacher and other school salaries.