school funding

School finance is complicated enough without The Oklahoman muddying the waters in an attempt to shift much of the blame for chronic underfunding of schools to the school systems themselves.

That criticism of traditional public schools and other school reformers is like comparing the per-patient costs of a clinic serving young, mostly healthy drop-ins with the costs of an emergency room.

Two points jump out from the newspaper’s recent editorials:

First, The Oklahoman blames educators — who have their hands full keeping their underfinanced schools open — for not fixing the historic problems that plague Oklahoma’s budgeting and taxation systems. Presumably, in their spare time, education leaders should take charge of the state’s problems with auditing its property taxes. To do that, I guess, educators should wave a magic wand and reform tax-incentive finance districts so that money diverted to Oklahoma City’s downtown could be redirected back to the classroom. (And if educators would also solve the state’s problem with earthquakes, we’d be respected more, and our political stock would rise.)

Second, none of the charges cited by The Oklahoman have been directed toward the Oklahoma City Public School System. For instance, the newspaper’s editorials have long-criticized supposedly excessive spending on overhead. In a future post, I hope to address the reasons why the federal government — not the local schools — deserves the blame for increased administrative spending. This analysis will merely note that the OKCPS only spends about 2.5 percent of its budget on administration. Tulsa administrative spending is also low, but it is one-third higher.

A crisis by the numbers

Any way you spin it, Oklahoma schools are facing a crisis. We are 47th in the nation in school funding. Our average funding is $8,851 per student, in contrast to the regional average of $10,744. That is 22 percent less. Teachers can earn up to $10,000 a year more by merely crossing some of our borders.

And it is worse than that: Sixty-one percent of Oklahoma students are defined as low-income, with 22 percent at the poverty level or below. The OKCPS is nearly 90 percent low-income, and it has a poverty rate of 34 percent. Of course, The Oklahoman and other supporters of corporate school reform like to blame poverty on schools, not vice versa.

Decades of neglect

Basically the only constructive thing about The Oklahoman’s education editorials is the title of its Sept. 2 one, which notes that Oklahoma’s property tax problems have “festered for decades.” That should be a reminder that Oklahoma’s disgraceful austerity of today must be seen in a historical context.

Our schools’ crises are the cumulative result of decades of neglect on multiple fronts. When studying for my Boy Scout merit badge in civics, we were told that the majority of school costs are supposed to be carried by local districts, and that it was the difference between property values across the state that explains why some have such gorgeous buildings while others have a collapsing infrastructure. Now, the state provides nearly 60 percent of the state and local funding of the highest poverty schools (and about 31 percent less for low-poverty schools).

During MAPS for Kids, I was told that Oklahoma had a relatively equitable funding system, but we should not talk about it lest we attract the attention of legislators who would undo our accomplishment.

Only later did I learn what that actually meant for the OKCPS.

The New York Times reported that the district’s per pupil spending in 1990 was $1,526 per pupil for schools that were 80 percent African-American in contrast to only $1,461 for schools that were 10 percent African-American. The extra $65 was nice, but even if every penny of the total funding was spent flawlessly, the OKCPS did not have nearly the resources necessary for equitable outcomes.

Results possible despite funding woes

Oklahoma’s allocation formula remains one the fairest in the nation, with the highest poverty districts receiving an average of about $531, or 7 percent, more per student. But, it is more complicated than that. When the Education Trust adjusted for additional needs that low-income students bring to the classroom, it discovered that Oklahoma’s highest poverty districts got $101 less per student.

That brings us to the reality that is mostly overlooked: Whether we are speaking of high-performing suburban schools, fantastic magnet schools (that might not receive federal Title I funding) or high-performing, low-poverty charters (but not KIPP, which receives thousands of dollars of per-student funding compared to OKCPS schools), it remains possible to produce outstanding outcomes despite the lack of funding. However, the lack of resources for our urban-neighborhood schools makes it impossible for them to improve very much. The issue is not the number of low-income children; the problem is extreme concentrations of children from generational poverty who have endured multiple traumas.

In other words, the challenge of improving schools with large percentages of kids who bring multiple, complex and chronic problems to class is incomparably greater. It is like the health care sector, where 86 percent of all spending in 2010 was for people with one or more chronic medical conditions.

More money needed

Finally, the purpose of federal-education spending was primarily to provide equity for children with disabilities and to redress historic injustices due to discrimination.

Federal policies are even more confusing, and I will be addressing them next week. Like the state of Oklahoma and the OKCPS, federal policies are flawed, but we should not be too quick to judge. The solution to imperfect and underfunded programs is not to pull the plug on them.

School improvement is maddeningly difficult, and incremental gains are the best we will get. It’s a shame that school finance is so complicated, but we won’t produce any improvements without investing more money, and The Oklahoman should know better.