Crescent Public Schools
Crescent Superintendent and High School Principal Bart Watkins stands in front of the school on July 9, 2018. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)

Amid an intensifying drumbeat of political promises to propel schools to spend more of their dollars in the classroom, Crescent Public Schools stands out.

The district of 600 students in Logan County spent 64 percent of its total funding in 2016-17 on instruction, which includes things like teacher salaries, textbooks and smartboards.

That’s an unusually high proportion. According to one state agency, Oklahoma as a whole spent 57 percent on instruction, and most districts spent less than 60 percent – a line drawn by Gov. Mary Fallin in a potentially far-reaching executive order dated Nov. 21. Four out of five districts and charter schools, in fact, spent less than 60 percent.

Under the order, the Department of Education is to provide by Sept. 1 each year a list of districts spending less than 60 percent on instruction. Those districts will be targeted for administrative consolidation or annexation by a nearby district. If they don’t submit a plan, the State Board of Education and Education Department will develop one and require the district to implement it.

The goal is to increase the focus on classroom spending to support higher teacher salaries and instructional resources, said Michael McNutt, a spokesman for Fallin.

But Fallin’s executive order left out some important details, the most significant being how the percentage of instructional spending should be calculated. That job will fall to the Department of Education, which has yet to determine the formula.

The state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability already analyzes districts’ spending, using the operational spending school districts are required to report to the National Center for Education Statistics each year. The data show that because of the complicated nature of school finance, percentages of classroom spending aren’t always what they appear to be.

A contrast of districts

Crescent Public Schools, for instance, exceeds the 60 percent mark, giving it one of the highest percentages of instructional spending in the state. But Superintendent Bart Watkins says the district’s finances and the educational services it can afford are far from ideal.

“We have scraped by about as thin as you can make it,” Watkins said. “We lost nine positions … We don’t have band, vocal music, math intervention, reading intervention. None of that exists anymore.”

When Watkins took over as superintendent in the fall of 2016, he had the difficult task of adjusting the district’s finances to compensate for shrinking funding from the state. Schools across the state have seen midyear funding cuts for the past several years.

Crescent, which receives nearly half its funding from state aid, spent a total of $6 million in 2016-17, or about $8,500 per student. About $4,900 per student was spent on instruction.

Dover Public Schools Superintendent Max Thomas sits in the library of the the district’s new high school, built after the former, century-old high school burned. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

On the opposite end of the spending spectrum is Dover Public Schools, just 20 miles down the road from Crescent. The district spent one of the state’s smallest percentages of funding on the classroom that year: 20 percent. But that actually amounted to nearly $6,000 per student on instruction – $1,000 more per student than Crescent spent.

The comparison between Dover and Crescent indicates that, as defined by one agency, a higher percentage spent on instruction doesn’t necessarily mean more dollars per pupil are going into the classroom.

The tiny district of 150 students spent a total of $29,700 per student that year, well above the statewide number.

It’s a common misconception that the money schools aren’t spending on the classroom is going to administration. But there are other categories, too. Instructional support is a separate category, and it includes items like curriculum and professional development for classroom teachers – expenses that some might argue directly impact the classroom.

There’s also student support, which includes guidance counselors and school nurses, and “Other,” a catchall category that includes buses, school meals, land purchases and construction projects.

It’s that “Other” category where most (62 percent) of Dover’s spending went in 2016-17. That’s because the district was building a new high school after the previous 100-year-old building burned in a fire.

Less than 5 percent of its budget was spent on administration in 2016-17, lower than the 9 percent statewide. Dover reduces some administrative costs by sharing superintendent Max Thomas with Chisholm Trail Technology Center.

New version of old proposal

Fallin’s plan to push districts to spend at least 60 percent of their dollars on the classroom is reminiscent of a proposal from the mid-2000s, called the “65 Percent Solution.”

That plan was considered by lawmakers in Oklahoma and more than 20 other states, including Texas and Kansas. Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb also revived this idea in his unsuccessful bid for governor this year.

In 2005, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring that at least 65 percent of school districts’ funds be spent on classroom instruction after a three-year phase-in.

But Texas lawmakers reversed course in 2009, banning use of the 65 percent measure, or any other specified percentage of funds on instruction, in the state’s school financial accountability rating system.

Nationally, interest in the 65 percent solution waned following a study by Standard & Poor’s that showed some of the highest performing districts spent less than 65 percent of their budgets on instruction.

Oklahoma’s spending on areas not classified as instruction has drawn fire from some critics.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Oklahoma ranks 49th out of 51 states and the District of Columbia, with 55 percent of total education dollars spent on instruction in 2014-15. The U.S. total is 61 percent. Oklahoma is 16th highest in the share of spending on general and school administration, at 8.5 percent, but the differences among states are small; most states spend between 7 and 9 percent.

With teacher and support staff pay raises going into effect Aug. 1, nearly all school districts will see their percentage spent on instruction fluctuate. But to comply with the governor’s order, the state Education Department will use data that pre-dates the raises.

Teachers, of course, are critical to student learning. But expenses like counselors, audiologists, bus transportation and school nurses help teachers do their job more efficiently, said Michael Leachman, senior director of state fiscal research for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, D.C.

“You need the kids to be able to get to school, and you need them to be in a school building that is not 105 degrees, and you need to be able to identify if a kid is not able to hear the teacher,” he said. “These are generally considered worthy expenditures.”

Another potential problem with the order as it is written is that school districts will face consequences based on a single-year snapshot of their finances, instead of a multi-year average. A multi-year measure could better account for abnormal spending like Dover’s new high school.

Too big to consolidate?

Consolidation and annexation has long been a political hot potato. Oklahoma has more than 500 school districts, which some people believe is too many. But the prospect of closing schools or even losing local control of those schools, particularly in rural towns, is politically unpopular.

Fallin’s order doesn’t target small schools; it focuses strictly on spending proportion regardless of student enrollment.

That leaves the potential to draw large, urban and suburban districts in the consolidation crosshairs. One such district is Union Public Schools in Tulsa, which has 16,000 students and spent 42 percent of its funding on instruction in 2016-17, according to the Office of Educational Quality data.

Union officials say the percentage is misleading.

Union has a self-funded medical insurance for employees, which is unique to the district and not found in many, if any, other Oklahoma school districts, said Trish Williams, Union’s chief financial officer. It helps the district attract and retain teachers and other staff.

But it also counts against them when calculating non-instructional spending.

Williams says the state shouldn’t use all revenue to determine the percentage because certain funds can’t be used for instruction.

It makes sense, she said, to only use the general fund, which includes revenue available for teacher salaries but excludes restricted funds for things like school meals and building improvements. Instead, the Office of Educational Quality calculation considers all revenue and expenditures except debt service.

“You do have to look beyond the numbers to get a real grasp on what’s going on in a school district,” said Williams.