Greg Forster, Ph.D. | May 9, 2020
How big a Department of Education does Oklahoma need?
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
From curriculum to nutrition to family engagement to technology, the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s interference in your local school never rests. And when the state isn’t overregulating schools, it’s promoting the indoctrination of students into a progressive political agenda.
A lot of educational problems have remained consistent in Oklahoma over the years, stubbornly resisting all efforts to remove them. Spending goes up while outcomes stay flat. Local schools are buried under mountains of unnecessary regulation. Political agendas of the Left and Right (but usually the Left) get shoved into the classroom in hopes of indoctrinating the young.
There’s no magic wand to remove all these ills, but what if there were something we could do that would at least mitigate all of them?
No, no, I mean something else besides the patently obvious thing we should be doing, which is enacting universal school choice. While we wait for the advent of greater wisdom on that topic, Oklahoma could take a look at another solution: shrink the state department of education.
According to Oklahoma Watch, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has 485 employees. The state has only 1,924 public schools, so that’s almost exactly one department employee for every four schools in the state. It’s not quite the old joke about the U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was found distraught at his desk because his farmer had died, but it’s getting there.
What do Oklahoma schools get in exchange for all this? Not funding. The state legislature appropriates funds for public schools according to formulas written into the law. Indeed, state funding for education is one of the very few places left in American governance where legislatures still make their own decisions instead of delegating all the hard choices to the administrative state. Oklahoma could fund its public schools with no more than a handful of state employees involved, to gather data and program the check-writing machines.
No, the main thing local schools get from the state department of education is officious regulation. You can see this by glancing at the list of divisions in the department. Almost all of them are concerned with exercising various kinds of state control over local schools. From curriculum to nutrition to family/community engagement to technology, the state’s interference in your local school never rests.
But surely having all these state employees turned out to be a huge help to local schools when the coronavirus emergency hit, didn’t it? On the contrary, the department informed local schools that they needed to submit plans for dealing with the crisis to the state for approval—unless they chose to adopt the state’s preferred plan, in which case they were off the hook. Because local schools had nothing better to do at the height of the crisis than lobby the state government for permission to handle the crisis in the way that would work in their communities.
The document informing local schools of this helpful assertion of state control even bragged about how the department was considering the needs of local communities. If it had been, the document wouldn’t have existed in the first place.
The state even closed down virtual charter schools for a while, denying them an exemption to the order that schools had to close for quarantine. It would be nice to think this was mere bureaucratic inertia—an inability to make an exception to the rules for anything, even for digital learning during a pandemic. The more likely explanation is that the state saw an opportunity to flex its muscle and shut down an alternative to the government monopoly.
Before you cry “libertarian!” and make preparations to burn me at the stake, let me make three observations. First, this is not about the extent to which government controls private citizens, it’s about the extent to which state government controls local government. School districts and even charter schools are government entities. Our constitutional order depends on a healthy division of powers between these entities. That division is destroyed when states turn local governments into mere administrative units of the state, existing only to carry out what the state dictates.
Second, there is no reason in the world local schools can’t be trusted to handle these issues for themselves. Are local school boards incompetent to supervise lunchroom nutrition or classroom use of computers? What is the argument against letting each district, or even each school, control its own family/community engagement, technology, menus, and even curricula?
There are, it is true, real problems with local school governance structures—such as school board elections held at odd times so only the special interests vote. But that’s no excuse to take power from imperfectly accountable school boards and give it to even less accountable state bureaucrats. Fix the local governance systems instead of using their anemia as an excuse to subvert the constitutional order, protecting more and more decisions from democratic accountability with a wall of bureaucratic insulation.
Third, there is ample evidence of harmful state overreach. I’ve written before (“Relax school regulations”) about how badly overregulated Oklahoma schools are. The 1889 Institute counted 610 systems of state regulation controlling Oklahoma public schools [download the Excel sheet here]. They cover everything from tracking teachers’ professional development “points” to specifying the permissible calorie content of diet soda.
It’s not 100% clear to me that schools ought to expend any portion of their scarce labor and budget bandwidth on the vital task of monitoring how many calories are in the diet soda their students drink. But it is clear to me that if there is any question—any question whatsoever—that ought to be settled at the local level in our constitutional order, this is it. If states can control this, we should give up on pretending we still have a constitutional division of powers; it’s diet soda all the way down.
Clawing back this overregulation is not just a matter of downsizing the state department of education. The regulatory laws themselves will have to be reformed. But those are just two sides of the same coin. Shrinking the bloated and burdensome administrative state and reforming laws that overreach are really the same job.
When the Oklahoma State Department of Education isn’t overregulating schools, it’s promoting the indoctrination of students into a progressive political agenda. Last year the department pushed recommendations that Oklahoma public schools scrap moderate, sensible solutions to the transgenderism conundrum—such as allowing students who identify as transgender to use faculty restrooms or other separate facilities—and instead forcibly invade students’ most intimate bodily privacy by bringing biological boys into the girls’ rooms and vice versa. It also pushed schools to work with Generation Citizen, a civic-education nonprofit whose student activities bear the heavy stamp of progressive ideology.
Of course, Oklahoma is not going to just eliminate its department of education. Some state regulations of schools are sensible—especially monitoring respect for civil rights. Defining clear educational standards is a valid state function. Compliance with federal regulations is also an important issue; one might even think the state could learn something about the burden of state overreach upon local governance from its experience of federal overreach upon its own governance.
But while some kind of state educational department is a necessity, one employee for every four schools seems excessive. Oklahoma could save a few bucks on bureaucratic salaries if it could only find a way to get its state government out of the business of regulating the diet soda in every one of its schools.
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book is Economics: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019).