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Yes, Oklahoma, There Is Bloat in Public Schools

June 3, 2014 - 1:35pm CDT

In Oklahoma, defenders of the government school monopoly are trying out a new tactic in their never-ending struggle to convince you that the system isn’t wasting huge amounts of money. Don’t believe it. In Oklahoma, as in every other state, the government school system is chock full of wasteful bloat.

The latest tactic is to highlight a misleading statistic on administrative costs. Last month, a coalition of special interest groups representing Oklahoma school administrators began pushing out a press release trumpeting that only 3.5 percent of public school spending in Oklahoma public schools goes to administration. What a bargain! No bloat to be cut here! is the unspoken message.

The figure is accompanied by quotes from these interest groups. They lament the huge number of students they are required to serve for such a pittance. And they claim that education reforms enacted in Oklahoma have increased the burden on school administrators. We need more money if you seriously expect us to fix the schools! is the unspoken message.

First let’s take a look at that administrative costs figure. Suspiciously, right after announcing the figure, the administrators’ press release rushes to say something that appears irrelevant to the point:

Section 18-124 of Title 70 of the Oklahoma Statutes defines administrative costs in public schools and establishes caps on the amount of the funds districts can use to pay for central office administrators and staff.  These costs are typically referred to as ‘administrative costs’ in rhetoric regarding education funding.

Why this fussy attention to the definition of what counts as “administrative costs”? It could be because states have an incentive to tweak their official definitions in ways that reduce the amount of spending that gets called “administrative.” They look a lot better when that number is lower, and most people don’t stop to check the definitions.

The data-gathering arm of the U.S. Department of Education sets its own definitions for categories of spending. This is useful for making valid comparisons across states, but it also reduces the danger of shenanigans in the definitions. Where government agencies are collecting data on government systems you can never fully escape self-serving incentives, but in my experience the federal education data professionals have a reasonably good track record of playing it straight. So it’s useful to turn to their data and see what they say Oklahoma spends.

According to the most recently available federal budget data, 8 percent of Oklahoma public education spending went to administration in 2010-11. That includes 5 percent ($266,368,000) for administration in local schools and 3 percent ($165,215,000) for administration at the district and state levels. That’s roughly in line with the nationwide figure, which is 7 percent for administration at local, district, and state levels.

However, there are even more eye-catching numbers elsewhere in the public school budget. Most Oklahomans would probably be shocked to learn that only 51 percent of public education spending in their state goes to what is supposed to be the core function of schools: instruction. The rest goes not only to administration but to a variety of “support services” and “other expenditures” like guidance counselors, nurses, buses, and cafeterias.

This imbalance is also reflected in the education workforce. Only half of Oklahoma’s public education employees are teachers. In fact, the most up-to-date staffing statistics reveal that, after hovering just above the half-teachers mark in recent years, Oklahoma has now fallen a tiny bit below it in 2011-12. Only 41,349 of the 82,719 FTE public education employees in Oklahoma are teachers. The rest are administrators, aides, guidance counselors, nurses, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc. (On all these figures, Oklahoma is roughly in line with the nation at large.)

Why carry all these inessential services on the public payroll? I’ll admit that schools need some administrators and nurses. And I always smile when I see the line for “attendance support services”; that’s what we used to call truant officers. There’s no better way to “support” kids playing hooky than to drag them back to class. On the other hand, we waste a lot of money employing workers whose services are less central.

The army of government guidance counselors is crowding out families, churches, and other cultural institutions who used to raise our children. And why employ a legion of cafeteria workers and bus drivers? We could save millions, and get better quality, by contracting for these services with providers in the private sector. Or does government have a special expertise in these areas I’m not aware of?

Of course, we already know the answer to the question “why carry all these inessential services on the public payroll?” It’s so their unions can keep the dues money rolling in. The unions, in turn, ensure political protection for their monopoly by mobilizing their members as voters in elections for legislatures and school boards. Politicians in both parties and the government school unions look out for each other, and everyone wins—except for the rest of us.

I’ll offer the public school administrators a deal. I’ll support permanently doubling the amount of money we spend on administrators. In exchange, they have to support one of the following two proposals: Schools must contract all non-educational services from private providers, or (even better) parents get education savings accounts that enable them to choose any school, public or private, for their children.

I think I know what the administrators will say to that deal—and that’s all you really need to know about whether it’s worth throwing more money at the government school monopoly.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. His research has appeared in the peer-reviewed publications Teachers College Record and Education Working Paper Archive, and his articles on education policy have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other publications.