Budget & Tax , Education
Ray Carter | April 19, 2023
Texas lawmaker undermines narrative on Oklahoma school spending
In education debates, Texas is often portrayed as the land of milk and honey for supposedly downtrodden Oklahoma educators. Texas teacher-pay levels and per-pupil funding are portrayed as far greater than in Oklahoma, freeing Texas school officials from the challenges facing their Oklahoma counterparts.
The website of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, a lobbying entity, currently claims that Oklahoma’s neighboring states “invest substantially more in common education on a per-student basis,” saying Texas spends nearly $1,000 more per-pupil than Oklahoma.
The OSSBA also claims the average teacher in Texas was paid $4,083 more than an Oklahoma teacher during the 2021-2022 school year.
David Vinson, superintendent of Warner Public Schools and a member of the Organization of Oklahoma Rural Schools, recently wrote, “Our educators have been heading south to Texas for the past several years because of its attractive incentives and higher pay.”
Mary Mélon-Tully, president and CEO of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation, wrote in February, “When a neighboring state buys outdoor boards inviting our teachers to come south for the money, we need to pay attention.”
But Texas state Rep. James Talarico, a former public-school teacher and Democrat, thoroughly undermined those talking points during an April 11 meeting of the Texas House Public Education Committee.
“Right now, we have a historic teacher shortage in our state,” Talarico said. “We have teachers who are working a second job driving Ubers at night to pay the bills. We have teachers leaving the profession at a record rate. We have historic learning loss in our state after COVID. We have an escalating mental-health crisis. So yes, in our public schools right now because we are 43rd in per-pupil funding out of the entire country, the sky is falling in Texas public schools.”
Talarico’s description of Texas’ education landscape is virtually identical to the talking points routinely used by status-quo education-lobbying entities in Oklahoma, and contradicts claims that simply spending more on Oklahoma schools will generate dramatically different results.
Contrary to popular narrative in Oklahoma, Talarico indicated the reportedly higher-level of teacher pay in Texas has done little to address public claims of a teacher shortage.
And the story is the same across most of the nation.
When NewsNation reviewed teacher supply in all 50 states in January, the organization found that officials in nearly every state claimed to be facing some form of a teacher shortage, regardless of pay level or per-pupil funding.
The reason complaints about teacher shortages persist regardless of funding is that the teacher-shortage claim is primarily about boosting the membership and clout of various special interests whose numbers and revenue are tied to school employment levels, according to one expert.
Jonathan Butcher, senior research fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation, noted that complaints of a teacher shortage have consistently existed across the country going back to at least the 1920s, along with claims that teacher-pupil ratios are exploding.
“Is more money necessary for improved student achievement? The answer is no, and the research to support that is quite plentiful.” —Heritage Foundation scholar Jonathan Butcher
“It’s always been a claim of organized interests that they don’t have enough members,” Butcher said.
That’s been true in Oklahoma, where teacher-shortage claims and predictions of impending crises have been issued routinely for more than a century.
Even setting aside the teacher-shortage argument, Butcher said claims that increased spending will boost outcomes in schools are not based on hard data.
“Is more money necessary for improved student achievement? The answer is no, and the research to support that is quite plentiful,” Butcher said.
He noted that some of the nation’s worst academic outcomes occur in school districts with some of the highest levels of per-pupil spending, such as New York City ($38,000 per student), Los Angeles ($23,734), and Chicago (nearly $30,000 per student).
“That tends to be where the achievement gaps and the performance of low-income students is the worst, is the lowest,” Butcher said. “That tends to be where the achievement gaps are the biggest.”
And the trend in all states in recent decades is for school spending to increase without corresponding growth in academic results.
“We were spending far less per-pupil, even after adjusting for inflation, going back into the 1950s,” Butcher said.
But, he noted, the achievement gap between lower-income students and those from further up the economic ladder have persisted even as spending has surged.
In Oklahoma, lawmakers have dramatically increased state spending on schools since 2018. House Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, has noted that school funding increased by 33 percent from 2016 to 2022, and spending was further increased for 2023.
But the influx of money has had no notable positive impact on academic outcomes. In fact, as spending has increased, Oklahoma’s academic outcomes have declined based on multiple measurements, including the results of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), state tests, and the ACT college-admissions test.
Oklahoma lawmakers are pushing a massive increase in public-school spending this year.
House Bill 2775 would boost state spending on public schools by more than $500 million. That proposed increase comes at a time when Oklahoma schools began the current school year with roughly $1 billion in carryover funds and another $1 billion in unspent federal COVID bailout funds.
According to Oklahoma State Department of Education data from the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System, public-school district expenditures in 2022 totaled $9,058,129,282.81 and student enrollment is 698,577, meaning the average per-student expenditure in Oklahoma public schools is $12,967.
That figure exceeds the highest rate of private-school tuition for at least 81 private schools in Oklahoma, including many of the state’s largest-enrollment private schools. In fact, the highest rate charged at 62 private schools in Oklahoma was two-thirds or less the $12,967 per pupil received by Oklahoma public schools.
The effort to boost public-school spending by another half-billion would add to the roughly $13,000 per pupil already spent in Oklahoma.
During Senate floor debate, Senate Education Committee Chairman Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, proclaimed, “House Bill 2775 makes the largest single investment in public schools in the history of the state of Oklahoma.”
But the proposed increase, which is historic in size, was met with a collective shrug or demands for more from many establishment education entities.
Officials with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) dismissed the massive $500 million increase as insufficient, saying it “will not alleviate all of the existing concerns around competitively compensating educators; recruitment and retention; inflation; and the need for deeper investment in programs and services to meet student needs.”
After HB 2775 passed both chambers, the OSSBA wrote that “we know the state has the resources to invest even more.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.